Towns across the country have passed laws that hold parents accountable for their kids' behavior—including jail time.

By Zara Husaini Hanawalt and Libby Ryan
Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

New bullying laws enacted across the country punish parents for their kids’ behavior at school, using hundreds of dollars in fines and even jail time.

It may seem unorthodox—or even unfair—but is implementing a law like this the best way to keep kids safe? Since no parent can control every single thing his or her kids do, is it fair to make them legally responsible? Several towns and states are testing it out.

The Laws

In June, a Wisconsin town proposed an anti-bullying city ordinance after a slew of harassment was revealed to include peers suggesting a classmate should kill herself. The new Wisconsin Rapids ordinance would fine parents for a child’s first bullying offense, starting at $50 but totaling more than $300 with added fees.

The new Wisconsin Rapids proposal was inspired by similar legislation in Plover, Wisconsin that would fine parents $124. The 2015 Plover law also served as the model for one of the harshest laws on this kind in North Tonawanda, New York in 2017.

After several acts of juvenile violence culminating in an eight grade boy being attacked, the town enacted a new law stating that parents can be punished for their children's actions: Parents of kids who bully others, stay out past the city's curfew, or host unlawful parties take the legal brunt of these actions, and parents can even serve jail time under the law.

Though jail time may be mandated, the sentence can only be up to 15 days, and a $250 fine is the maximum monetary penalty.

"I'm all for it," North Tonawanda school superintendent Greg Woytila told The Buffalo News. "When you've got 3,000-plus students and two or three are out of control, that's too many. One's too many. Sometimes the police officers are the only ones trying. The families have given up."​

For the people of North Tonawanda, it appears this law stemmed from a mounting issue among local teens—and the fact that minors can't always be punished for their actions.

The sometimes severe consequences of these laws have yet to be tested. In Plover, some parents have been sent warning letters about bullying but no one has been fined. In North Tonawanda, the police department has also stuck to the warning letters—no parent has been fined or sent to jail.

“I’m hopeful to never get to that point, but it’s nice to have as another tool,” North Tonawanda city attorney Luke Brown told The New York Times. “Previously, the parents would know there was no repercussion.”

Bullying Laws in Your State

All 50 states have laws against bullying, although Pennsylvania is the only one with a proposed law to fine parents across the entire state instead of town-by-town. There are also federal laws in place to ensure kids with disabilities are protected against bullying.

But the laws and policies differ from state to state on issues that come up before a parent would be fined for their child’s behavior. For instance, many states require school districts to notify parents if their child is involved in a bullying situation and to involve them in the solution (Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Vermonth don’t). And not all states have policies requiring school districts to train all school staff—teachers, aides, bus drivers, and other support staff—on preventing and responding to bulling (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin don’t).

You can find out what laws are in your state at stopbullying.gov. If the laws in your state don’t include provisions for notifying parents or training teachers, your local city or town government might. Some school districts go beyond the state-wide rules and you can get in touch with your school district superintendent through your state department of education.

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