Monona anti-bullying ordinance sparks debate

Even though school’s out for many students, a new policy in Monona has revived the conversation about bullying.

The Monona Common Council recently approved an ordinance prohibiting bullying and harassment that includes a provision to hold parents responsible for children who are repeatedly bullying others. Parents who ignore warnings from law enforcement could face a $114 fine.

The story has gathered national and international headlines for its novelty, but some aren’t sure whether the policy is an effective way to handle bullying.

If parents aren’t involved already, it’s unlikely a fine would force them to change, said Gretchen Teich, whose third-grade daughter attends Washington Elementary in Wauwatosa.

“I think it’s important to have parents engaged in the process and to have parents help manage their child’s behavior,” she said Wednesday. “I don’t think imposing fines is going to make any difference if the parents are already checked out of the system.”

School officials at Washington Elementary recently held a forum about safety problems, including bullying. Teich said her daughter hasn’t been bullied, but her classmates have.

“I think she sees her friends as being targets, and there’s an environment where kids are scared of being the next victim and don’t tell adults what’s going on,” she said. “I think the learning environment is suffering because of the bullying.”

Still, she doesn’t think a law like the one approved in Monona would be effective.

The president of Greendale Against Bullying is interested to see how the law works.

“Anything that brings attention to this problem is good, but I don’t think a punitive approach would work,” Linda Lee said.

The advocacy group was formed after a high-profile bullying case in which a 17-year-old Greendale High School student scrawled a bomb threat on a bathroom wall. Prosecutors recommended a misdemeanor instead of a felony charge because the student had been repeatedly teased and bullied.

Often by the time parents learn of the bullying, it has already escalated to a serious situation, Lee said. The group has prioritized training peer ambassadors — teens who spread the anti-bullying message to their fellow students.

“Our focus and emphasis is on taking positive, constructive approach,” she said.

Monona Police Chief Walter Ostrenga said Wednesday that the parental involvement piece of the legislation had gained the most attention, but it’s not the most significant item.

“It says, ‘An ordinance prohibiting bullying and harassment,’ and I think that is huge. At least in Monona, bullying will not be tolerated,” he said.

The fine is not a criminal offense; it’s a civil forfeiture. Before a parent or guardian can be ticketed, officers must inform them in writing of a prior bullying offense that occurred within the past 90 days.

“We find parents in tears sometimes because they’re trying as hard as they can, but the teen is out of control,” he said. “Those are not the parents we’d be writing tickets for. The one that slams the door in your face, that’s the one who would most likely get a ticket.”

In the past few days, Ostrenga has fielded dozens of media requests and was interviewed by Canadian public radio and the New York Daily News.

“In all the media attention this is getting, hopefully that generates discussion at the dinner table with parents and their children talking about what good behavior is. It’s not about writing the tickets, it’s about doing the right thing,” he said.


By Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel

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