A state representative in Pennsylvania has proposed a bill that would fine the parents of "bullies" up to $750 and make them attend parenting classes.
State Rep. Frank Burns, a Democrat, spent last year extracting anti-bullying pledges from every school in his district, which is outside Johnstown. While on what sounds like a rather bullying tour, he heard stories from bullied kids and decided to redouble his efforts.
If his bill were to become law, the fine would be imposed after disciplinary measures and action plans have proved to be ineffective. The website PennLive explained that if the school were to file a citation against the parents, the whole thing would go to court, where parents could plead their case before a judge.
But the problems here are many, starting with the definition of bullying. Is there really a way to distinguish plain old "being mean" from "bullying"? If so, who gets to decide? The kid who feels hurt? The parents of the kid? The school?
On the website stopbullying.gov, the list of activities the government considers bullying includes "teasing," "taunting" and "excluding someone from a group on purpose." That's a wide swath of human behavior.
What if some kids want to leave someone out on purpose because that someone is a bully? Now he could claim to have been bullied. What a mess.
But of course, human nature is a mess. "Bully" is a fluid category. Bullies don't always think they're bullies. Often they feel aggrieved, too. Rather than turn some kid into an official pariah — and kick his family financially (which might lead to the kid's being kicked physically) — the school and government should not get into the habit of officially labeling anyone.
A law such as this could even make bullying worse, says Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist who has been researching and teaching about bullying for decades. "The reason is very simple," he said in an email. "What will you fight harder? A traffic ticket that serves as nothing more than a warning, or one that carries a $750 fine and gives you a permanent criminal record? Well, that's exactly what will happen when parents have to pay huge fines." The kids labeled bullies would angrily deny it. They might get their friends to turn against the alleged victims, too. Then the parents might fight the school administrators' accusations, fueling "even more intensive feuds."
Besides, isn't allowing anyone to report a bully anonymously ripe for backfiring? Doesn't this give unlimited power to anyone with the desire to hurt someone else? Open up an official case on the person, anonymously! We've already seen what happens when busybodies call child protective services to complain that a neighbor is parenting wrong. More anonymous reporting is not what we need.
And finally, there's the broader problem of teaching kids to outsource their moral development to the authorities. In the New York City subway, there are signs that say, "If you see a sick passenger, do not attempt to help them. Alert a police officer or a transit employee." The government is telling us to not be fully human: Do not exercise judgment or compassion; stand back and wait for officials to handle even the everyday problems that individuals have traditionally handled. Likewise, the bullying bill proposed by Burns takes an age-old issue and teaches kids not to try to solve it on their own. Ask an authority instead.
Of course, sometimes bullying really is very cruel and a higher power is needed. That has always been the case, and schools are already on high bully alert. This bill would not help kids. But it could hurt a lot of families.