All three of Darren O'Brien's teenage daughters have been bullied at school. He said they have been shoved into lockers; one was surreptitiously recorded, he said, and another told to kill herself.
O'Brien, a 38-year-old paper mill employee, said he pleaded with school principals, teachers and a guidance counsellor to find a way to stop the abuse, but none of it had made much difference.
Now he is hoping a novel proposal in the city of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, where his daughters go to school, will help stem harassment in the district: making parents pay up to US$313 (NZ$475) in fines and fees if their children bully others.
Craig Broeren, the superintendent of the Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools, said he asked two municipalities to assess the district's bullying policy last fall, but the review took on more urgency in February, when notes telling a seventh grader to kill herself surfaced online, thrusting classroom bullying into the open.
Broeren said he could not discuss specific students or complaints, but he said the district takes any reported bullying seriously and is willing to try any measure that could help tackle the complex issue. Doing so requires parents to be aware of their children's behavior and to be active in changing it, he said.
"By its very nature, bullying is not overt," Broeren said. "Someone doesn't holler down the hall in earshot of adults."
The central Wisconsin city isn't alone in looking to parents to solve the vexing problem of bullying, which 20 per cent of students ages 12 to 18 experience at school each year, according to the Department of Education. Several other municipalities, and at least one state legislature, have considered fining — or even jailing — parents whose children bully.
Where such legislation has passed, though, the penalties are rarely imposed. Local officials compared the ordinances to truancy laws, acting as deterrents rather than punishments. Still, some critics say the bills could backfire and unfairly punish parents for their children's actions.
Dr. Amanda Nickerson, who directs the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, said she was skeptical that being fined would suddenly motivate parents to get involved in changing their child's behaviour. She said the key to engaging parents is to set up meetings between them and teachers to discuss how to encourage good behaviour, before seeking any kind of penalty.
When the authorities fine parents over bullying, "there's a lot of steps in between punishment and behavior change in the child that are missing," Nickerson said. Without those intermediate steps, "the parent is probably going to be angered and think that the schools or the courts are being ridiculous or overblown."
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A harsher version of the legislation pending in Wisconsin Rapids is already in place in North Tonawanda, New York, near Buffalo, where parents may be fined US$250 (NZ$380) and jailed for up to 15 days if their child bullies someone. Luke Brown, the city attorney, said that since the law went into effect in 2017, the police department has sent warnings to a handful of parents but has not fined or jailed anyone.
"I'm hopeful to never get to that point, but it's nice to have as another tool," Brown said of the law. "Previously, the parents would know there was no repercussion."
In Pennsylvania, Frank Burns, a Democratic state representative, proposed legislation that would fine parents up to US$500 (NZ$760) if their child continued to bully others after warnings and a meeting with school officials. He said the reaction to the proposal has been mixed, and the bill has stalled in a committee.
The Wisconsin Rapids legislation is modelled on a 2015 bill passed by Plover, Wisconsin, a village that approved one of the first bullying bills aimed at parents. Since then, Plover police have sent fewer than a dozen warning letters to parents and have never imposed the US$124 (NZ$188) fine. But Chief Dan Ault of the Plover Police Department sees that track record as a success, because officers have provided families with resources to curb the bullying.
If parents pay for an item that their child breaks in a store, then they should also be held responsible if their child is bullying other students, Ault said.
"When we know bullying is a learned behavior, and the most important person in children's lives are the parent, where's the line?" he asked.
O'Brien, who works six or seven days most weeks, said he was tired of feeling helpless about the harassment that his daughters, ages 13, 14 and 17, have faced. He said his youngest daughter, who just finished eighth grade, doesn't want to go to high school in the fall, because she would be there with the same pupils who have continued to bully her.
"She's such a good kid and has such a good heart," he said.
Broeren, the school superintendent, said parents of bullied children may feel as though nothing is being done because the school district cannot release information about how specific students are disciplined.
"The idea that there aren't interventions before this is turned over to law enforcement is a complete farce," he said. "There is an anti-bullying curriculum, and those things don't change. They stay in place."
O'Brien said he is not sure how much the fine proposal will help his three daughters, but he is eager to see it pass when it goes up for a vote next week.
"If it starts costing the parents a couple hundred bucks every time their kid bullies somebody, maybe that will change the course of action," he said. "Something has to be done."
Written by: Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
Photographs by: Lauren Justice
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES