NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. - The city of North Tonawanda's new anti-bulling law, which threatens parents with jail time or fines for their children's misconduct, has never before been tested by the courts in New York state.
It appears to have legal precedent, however, according to legal analyst and attorney Paul Cambria. He pointed to a case in California, where the courts upheld a similar statute because it adequately addressed the level of responsibility and knowledge needed by parents in order to prosecute.
Cambria, who has experience arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court, said he believes North Tonawanda's law is written in such a way that will help it stand up constitutionally. First of all, city attorneys included a clause that shifts the harsher burden of proof to defendants in cases where children are accused of two violations in a 90-day period. This is known as "rebuttable presumption," which would essentially reverse the "innocent-until-proven-guilty" into a "guilty-until-proven-innocent scenario."
This law has been put into effect in North Tonawanda. We're not aware of any other similar law of its kind in Western New York. https://t.co/M4zyPQLVne— Danny Spewak (@DannySpewakWGRZ) October 10, 2017
"That is a fairly good clause to have in one of these statutes if you're trying to have them upheld," Cambria said.
Still, Cambria wonders how the city's law will intersect with state law, which already has a statute on the book for civil penalties dealing with parents, children and their responsibility in cases of negligence.
And many other parents have lingering questions about how this may all work in North Tonawanda, considering it's never been done before in any Western New York municipality.
Tracy and Tim Rodemeyer, whose son Jamey died of suicide in 2011 after being bullied, said they have mixed feelings about the new law. On one hand, they believe North Tonawanda has made a good-faith effort to prevent bullying in their schools and their neighborhoods. They believe the threat of jail time or a fine may force some parents to intervene in cases of severe bullying or harassment.
However, they also have some concerns about punishing parents, who may not always be able to control their children's behavior at every hour of the day.
"It's a step in the right direction, but I don't know if it's the right step," Tracy Rodemeyer said. "I think it's still pushing a lot of the responsibility away from the kids that are actually doing the wrong stuff here."
According to the language of the new city code, parents could be punished for their child's first offense-- not only for bullying, but also for other violations like breaking curfew. The punishment will depend on a judge's discretion.
On Monday, however, City Attorney Luke Brown told WGRZ that it's extremely unlikely judges will hand out jail sentences or heavy fines on a first offense.
The Rodemeyers both agreed that judges should exercise caution on first violations. After that, perhaps they could ramp up penalties.
"If you're warned and you're not willing to correct the problem, then I think it's fine to get some jail time," Tim Rodemeyer said. "Definitely warning people, first of all, is the right thing to do."