A new trend is starting to emerge in how bullying is addressed -- punishing parents for their children's bullying behavior. In Monona, Wisc., parents can now be "ticketed" should their children continue to bully after the parents have received a "warning" from police. According to one editorial, the policy's intent is to spur parents to take preventative and reparative action instead of having to pay the modest fine associated with the ticket.
The sentiment behind this policy is far from new. Over the course of the last several years, on message boards and articles throughout the Internet, commenters often draw focus to "bullies'" parents and their seeming lack of control of their children. These commenters call for parents to face fines or even jail time for their children's actions. These same commenters often call for "zero-tolerance" and suspension or expulsion of "bullies" from school. Yet, we know from the research that such zero-tolerance policies fail to change youth behavior and, in many cases, can make the bullying situation worse.
As punishments get harsher, so too do the debates about what constitutes bullying. The punishment must fit the crime, but what happens when bullying does not seem serious enough to warrant the punishment? No one wants to expel a student for merely "teasing" another student and no parent would willingly accept a fine for "bullying," for behavior they may seem as "harmless fun." A case in New Jersey was recently settled, where a child felt bullied because a peer shoved paper down the back of the child's shirt. The offending peer's parents argued that such behavior was simply a harmless prank, and ultimately a judge agreed with this evaluation. But what about the child who felt bullied? By unilaterally denying his experience, that child could be further traumatized, and these experiences are only going to get worse when a parent's wallet and reputation are at stake.
Our attempts to stop bullying thus far have been well intentioned, but have not made the desired impact. Simply adding a new set of punishments is unlikely to help. Instead, we must focus on giving adults and children the tools to effectively prevent bullying, rather than simply reacting to bullying after it has happened. If we ask a parent to prevent bullying for fear of a ticket, but the parent does not know what to do, what is the end result?
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Right's new bullying prevention initiative, RFK Project SEATBELT (Safe Environments Achieved Through Bullying prevention, Engagement, Leadership, and Teaching respect), aims to provide the tools so that parents, as well as educators and others in the community, can effectively help their children become resilient, respectful, and responsible and prevent their involvement in bullying, either as the child who bullies or the child who is bullied, or both. It also provides guidance should a parent learn his or her child may be bullying others. We must help parents prevent bullying, not punish them for not having the tools to do so.