By Steve Gunn

MONONA, Wis. – A lot of people believe parents must become more involved in their children’s lives and more responsible for their behavior.

In Monona, Wisconsin this is not just a topic of debate. Parents will no longer have the option of sitting on the sidelines, at least when it comes to their children bullying other kids.

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A new ordinance recently approved by the town’s common council holds parents legally responsible for their minor children who bully peers.

Under the terms of the ordinance, parents must be given a warning regarding a bullying incident involving their child within the past 90 days. Parents who fail to correct the situation could be ticketed and fined up to $114, according to a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The law has drawn the attention of media throughout the nation.

Critics say the ordinance will be ineffective because parents who have been largely absent in governing their children’s behavior aren’t likely to change overnight.

Supporters say it’s time to do whatever is necessary to get parents involved.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin, a Milwaukee nonprofit that promotes bullying prevention in schools. “It forces parents to be more involved in their child’s life, if they aren’t already.”

Monona Police Chief Walter Ostrenga says the ticketing portion of the law would only be an option for police officers who try to work with parents and get little cooperation.

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“We find parents in tears sometimes because they’re trying as hard as they can, but the teen is out of control,” Ostrenga 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 most likely would get a ticket.

“In all the media attention this is getting, hopefully that generates discussions 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.”

Bullying prompted recent tragedies

The problem of bullying, particularly in school settings, has been the topic of a lot of conversation in recent years. That’s a good thing.

There’s no doubt that millions of children suffer physical and emotional damage every year due to various forms of bullying, and sometimes it has tragic results.

In Marion, Ohio several months ago, a 14-year-old student hung herself on campus following reports that she had been taunted by peers. The girl apparently suffered from depression already, and other kids had been telling her she should kill herself, according to reports.

In Queens, New York last week, a 12-year-old girl hung herself from a ceiling fan at home. In a note she left behind, she blamed classmates who teased her for her feelings of despair.

Sometimes the victims of bullying vent their pain and frustration in violent or unacceptable ways.  In Greendale, a 17-year-old student was recently caught writing a bomb threat on a bathroom wall, which is considered a very serious offense.

Local prosecutors recommended charging the student with a misdemeanor rather than a felony because, in the words of the news story, the suspect has been “repeatedly bullied and teased.”

Det. Sgt. Ryan Losby of the Monona Police Department said the new ordinance was partially motivated by research that shows that many perpetrators in recent school shootings considered themselves victims of bullying.

“That end of the violence has really escalated,” Losby told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Do kids need to have thicker skin?

Some believe youngsters may be oversensitive these days, and have a tendency to overreact to verbal sparring or mild criticism from classmates. They believe children need to have thicker skin as they go about their daily business.

Kids are always going to tease each other, and the more a victim reacts to the teasing, the worse it can get.  Children with proper self-esteem should be able to shake their heads and walk away from most forms of verbal abuse.

First amendment questions should also be addressed when creating laws addressing bullying. The Monona ordinance defines bullying as “an intentional course of conduct which is reasonably likely to intimidate, emotionally abuse, slander or threaten another person and which serves no legitimate purpose.”

It seems like such a vague, open-ended definition – particularly one that tries to determine what type of speech has a legitimate purpose – may come dangerously close to crossing the line of free speech and expression, and might be a prime target for a court challenge.

But the classic meaning of bullying – when someone uses their physical or institutional power or authority over someone else to intimidate or abuse them – describes the type of situation that should never be tolerated.

An advocacy group called “Greendale Against Bullying,” which formed after the restroom bomb threat in that school district, has a more passive strategy to address the issue. It’s been training “peer ambassadors” to spread an anti-bullying message to their fellow students, the news report said.

All of that is fine and good, but it wouldn’t hurt to get the parents of the perpetrators involved, as well.

Our guess is that the parents of many bullies were probably bullies themselves in school, and some probably laugh at reports of their children’s behavior. They figure they are just chips off the old block.

A ticket might convince them that the city means business and bullying is no longer acceptable.

Paying fines might prompt them to have serious discussions with their kids – perhaps for the first time in years – about the consequences of their behavior, in the present and the future.

Such dialogue between parents and children can only be a good thing.