The Bully Police
Monona's new bully law that holds parents accountable draws attention
Detective sergeant Ryan Losby of the Monona Police Department is kind of an ordinance geek. He pores over rule books, studying statutes in other municipalities and states to anticipate what laws Monona, a city of 7,500 residents, might someday need to enforce. Just because a case of, say, huffing (breathing inhalants to get high) hasn’t come across the MPD’s desk yet doesn’t mean it won’t. So why not be proactive? So far, he’s shepherded thirteen ordinances into existence, including the one on huffing and another that restricts the use of a vehicle as a residence.
Two years ago, he began the bureaucratic slog that eventually became Ordinance No. 5-13-645 and was recently passed by the city council. This one’s a doozy, and as such has garnered international media attention, with very few detractors. The fact that the new law is designed to deter adolescent bullying citywide—both on and off school property—isn’t the hot button. The behavior is increasingly common thanks to technology and social media. In fact, it’s become such a ubiquitous social phenomenon that pediatricians address it along with sex and drugs during annual physicals and schools and community centers dedicate copious amounts of resources toward it to educate and keep kids safe from early childhood on up.
Losby is aware of other punitive efforts to thwart bullying in Wisconsin and around the country, but his brainchild goes further by holding parents accountable. The first bullying ordinance with a parent-liability clause in the nation has the police department fielding inquiries from everyone from Craig Melvin on MSNBC to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. Katie Couric’s people phoned, too.
Here’s how it works: If a kid between the age of twelve and eighteen is accused of bullying, the offense must meet the legal definitions and the standards for judging them. Those criteria are adopted from state statutes and cite disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a telephone, unlawful use of computerized communication systems and harassment. From there, the parents receive a letter from the police notifying them of the complaint. At that point the parents are on notice that if another incident occurs within ninety days, and there is probable cause that they did nothing to prevent it, they can incur the civil, not criminal, violation.
It seems to me this is a very high standard to meet and that most complaints will fall through the dragnet. Plus, parents can plead not guilty or appeal. So the $114 ticket is not automatic and it is clearly designed for worst-case scenarios. “We’re looking for the true bad apples,” Losby tells me. “The ones that aren’t stopping.”
Critics of the law say bad kids can have good parents who have no way of preventing the behavior, or that bad parents could use the circumstances as an excuse to bully their own kids, or worse. There are also racial justice issues that we need to be sensitive to so that families of color aren’t disproportionately affected. These are all valid concerns, but Losby, a La Follette High grad who’s logged fifteen years in law enforcement, has done his homework and his arguments are compelling. The wired world we live in puts kids at risk 24-7. Some victims do the unthinkable, committing suicide or bearing arms and attacking schools in retaliation. And kids whose grades are suffering or who skip school are often struggling and acting out because they are being bullied. If parents are liable for their truant kids, why shouldn’t they be liable for their chronic bullies, too?
While Losby’s motivations weren’t personal, he’s the father of an eleven- and thirteen-year-old. He knows who the bullies are in their school—other parents know it, teachers know it, and the students know it. “The kids I’ve talked to about this ordinance love it,” he says. “The hard part is, most bullying victims do not want to report, so now it’s our job to do more public relations.” He ticks off local events, neighborhood watch programs, Facebook, word of mouth and working with the schools as ways to promote and increase awareness, but in the same breath expresses hope that his law collects dust on a city hall shelf.
“I love it and I’m willing to talk about it all day long,” he says with a big, pride-filled grin. “But we hope we never have to cite anybody over it.”
Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.
Find more of her columns here.