On Tuesday, June 18th, it is very possible the nation will learn about the resolve of the Wisconsin Rapids Common Council to act against bullying. If the proposed ordinance to impose fines on parents of young bullies passes it will send two messages. First it will say as a society the victims of bullies have a strong ally. Secondly, it makes clear that everyone involved with a bullying experience, even the parents of the perpetrator, has to bear some of the responsibility.
The ordinance would prohibit bullying, harassment, and retaliation against anyone who reports such incidents. The measure would also hold parents and guardians responsible for such behavior of children younger than 18 years old. Penalties for a first fineable offense would be $50, with additional costs bringing the total to $313. I am a strong supporter of this measure, but even more so of the determination of a school district and community to come to terms with the harmful and damaging consequences of bullying.
I write about this matter with a personal perspective. My best friend and I were victims of bullies throughout our school years, with high school in the late 1970’s being the most intensely troubling. Three months after graduation the county sheriff arrived at my home to tell me of the suicide of the person who I had known better than anyone else since I was nine years old. I offer that insight for the sole reason of making it clear I know what is at stake when it comes to youth who are bullied. My efforts over time from Big Brothers to working with a mentoring program for troubled teenagers has been my way of moving forward.
During my high school years I seriously viewed the hallways and rooms as a gauntlet that was to be navigated and the day without a rough shove or hit a success. That was my reality. It was far too easy for faculty to be watching kids torment the smart kids, the gay kids, the kids who were different by pretending not to see anything. See something, say nothing, there is less paperwork and less confrontation with parents—and by extension with administrators who will inevitably choose the wrong side. It was always too easy to hear comments like “That’s so gay!” or “You’re such a wuss”, and more and not have any of the adults in the room stop and make those words a teachable moment.
Why this common council ordinance is so important is that they have accepted there is a problem within the school culture. They know it will take work, and even thinking outside the box, in order to remedy. It takes conscious community effort from the school board right on down to the teaching assistants and families who send their kids there, along with a vote Tuesday in the council. The push back against bullying requires all our help.
Years ago I worked at a non-profit that arranged for mentors to be placed with teenagers who were already in group homes. If these young teens did not set their paths in a more positive direction, things were surely to get worse. Part of my job was to speak with the teenagers, and do an assessment for placement with a mentor. One of the first to sit in the office with me looked every part the average male teenager. He was in a group home, which demonstrated to me that there was a lot going on behind those eyes, even if the eyes seemingly only reflected the lights of the office. I never anticipated, however, the words he spoke in such a plain and powerful way when responding to a question as to why he wanted a mentor. It was not so he could get away from the group home, or catch a burger or pizza, or even toss a football at a park. No, the reason this young man wanted a mentor was distinct. With all seriousness, he declared: “I want someone to talk with; I want someone to hear what I have to say.”
For me hearing those words rang like a stark bell. It was what I had felt at his age. The very thing that I needed at one time in my life so very much, and was unable to articulate the need for, or attain was what this troubled teenager was so simply able to state. This time there was an adult who was listening to what was being said. I was not about to let the ball drop.
Bullying should never be allowed to happen, and we need to make sure the young people in our life have at least one person who is always there to listen, and be non-judgmental. It must be recognized that bullying happens in large part because first there is a bully who taunts, demeans, and harms another be it in psychical or emotional ways. But there also needs to be a clear recognition that those who bully are often allowed to do so because there are others who witness such acts and never take the initiative to make sure that it does not continue.
And that needs to end. One of the ways to achieve that is with the passage of the ordinance in Wisconsin Rapids which will doubtless makes news nationwide, and encourage other parents and communities to act in a similar measure.
Today’s youth deserve no less.