The goal of the village of Plover’s anti-bullying ordinance is not to issue citations or collect revenue, Plover Police Chief Dan Ault said.
Its main purpose is to raise awareness among parents who might not know their child is bullying others at school or on social media.
The ordinance applies to the whole village, which means police can address bullying that happens away from school property, Ault said.
Plover, located near Stevens Point, is one of several communities in the state with such a policy. As the Janesville City Council considers developing an anti-bullying policy, The Gazette contacted some of these places to learn more about the effectiveness of their ordinances.
The push in Janesville to enact such a measure comes after the suicide of 12-year-old Ellizabeth Jacobson.
At Monday’s city council meeting, Rebecka Coughlin, Ellizabeth’s mother, and other anti-bullying advocates encouraged officials to enact the ordinance, saying it could prevent another child suicide.
Some of Monday’s speakers cited what other places have done to deter bullying.
Most of these communities created their anti-bullying ordinances by combining four state statutes pertaining to harassment, disorderly conduct, and unlawful use of telephones and computers. They define bullying as intentional behavior that is “reasonably likely to intimidate, emotionally abuse, slander or threaten” another person while serving “no legitimate purpose.”
None of the four municipalities The Gazette surveyed have issued citations for violating the ordinance. In Plover, police decided one incident was serious enough to be disorderly conduct, a more severe offense, Ault said.
None of these places believed they had a specific problem with bullying. It was a societal issue that happens everywhere, officials said.
And while all the communities designed their policies to prevent childhood bullying, officials said their ordinances could apply to adults, too.
Monona established its policy in 2013. Police there first issue warning letters, then levy a $124 fine if the bullying doesn’t stop. Subsequent offenses cost $187, Police Chief Walter Ostrenga said.
The city has distributed three warning letters in five years, he said.
Ostrenga thinks some victims of bullying are still too scared to report incidents to police, but he hopes the policy could empower some kids to speak up and send a message that bullying will not be tolerated, he said.
In Shawano, the police and schools joined forces to establish the ordinance in 2016. Combining multiple state statutes into one city policy helped police focus on specific types of behavior, City Administrator Brian Knapp said.
“Officers have a lot of discretion when they issue citations. They may not want to tag a young person with a disorderly conduct-type of charge just because of the potential ramifications of that,” Knapp said. “Having a specific charge for bullying or bullying behavior, which could be anything from texting to a pattern of intimidation, that’s more easy to define.”
Violating the ordinance in Shawano costs $366 for the first offense. The fee jumps to $681 if a second offense occurs within one year of the first, according to a document provided by the city.
South Milwaukee enacted its policy last month. Sometimes, handing out a citation—which would cost $439—might not be the best option, Police Chief William Jessup said.
“There are some occasions where the offense might be a one-time activity,” he said. “We may have juveniles who are immature who recognize once they’re talked to their actions are inappropriate and would change their behavior.”
It will take time to determine whether South Milwaukee’s fledgling ordinance will be a deterrent, but it’s a “symbolic message” backed up by the threat of financial penalty, Jessup said.
Ault firmly believes in the power of Plover’s ordinance to make a difference.
Some people have criticized him and said the policy is like the government intruding on parenting tactics. Some say victims could handle bullies themselves by retaliating physically.
Ault said critics misunderstand the ordinance’s purpose.
The policy encourages parents to take a more active role in their children’s lives, but it doesn’t tell them how to do it. And physical violence would do nothing to deter hurtful messages archived on social media, he said.
Bullying behaviors have also evolved on social media, where they can proliferate quickly. Solutions devised before the advent of social media don’t work in that context, but the ordinance can help modernize prevention tactics, Ault said.
The village has yet to issue a $124 fine in three years of existence. But citation numbers aren’t a useful tool to check whether the policy is working.
Its benefits—parental awareness and discouraged behavior—are subjective and harder to measure, he said.
He compared it to two methods of policing drunken driving. One officer might make a slew of intoxicated driver arrests while another might deter drunk people from getting behind the wheel at all.
“To gauge something like this, I don’t know that we’ll ever have the numbers to see how effective it is,” Ault said. “But I do know that this has reached a lot of people, and it’s important to a lot of people. I think we have prevented a lot of bad decisions.
“Here’s the thing. If I prevent one child from killing themselves, if I prevent one child from bringing a gun to school and killing somebody, if I get a kid to go to school that would have normally stayed home, then this ordinance already was worth it.”