Schools and bullies are so closely linked that even young kids who feel threatened know to avoid unsupervised areas: school yards, locker rooms, stairwells, cafeterias, the school bus. The only problem is, of course, they can’t.
Now comes a documentary that will make even the most complacent adult feel the terror that school bullies can inspire. Bully
, which opened nationally April 13, offers a hard look at the kind of violent and emotional abuse many children face daily when they leave for school in the morning.
The film’s award-winning co-producer and director, Lee Hirsch, who was once a victim of bullying, has said in interviews that he made the film for the “12-year-old me.” The trauma, he has said, stayed with him for a long time, and the point of the film is to illustrate the seriousness of the problem.
Many of the adults in the film don’t come off too well. Their neglect in protecting their young charges—whether through ineptitude, cluelessness, or carelessness—seems a significant moral failure, which is why every educator should be required to see this film.Heartbreaking storiesBully
follows five families from around the country whose kids were bullied. Two kids killed themselves. Like most victims, these five children were targeted for being outliers—for being the new kid, the gay kid, the geeky, lonely, sad, or socially awkward kid.
One student tries to explain the harassment: “Kids don’t think I’m normal.”
The stories in the film are heartbreaking, like that of Tyler Long, who hanged himself at age 17. His grief-stricken father describes how Taylor was taunted. He had his face shoved into lockers. His clothes were stolen while he was in the locker-room showers. He was pushed while using a urinal, causing him to wet himself.
Without help from the school, David Long says, “Tell me how I was supposed to fix it? ’Cause I didn’t know how.”
There is also painful footage of 12-year-old Alex Libby being hit and strangled on a Sioux City, Iowa, school bus while a seatmate details how he intends to knife him, a scene that bothered Hirsh enough to screen it for Alex’s parents.
“I get called fish-face,” says Alex, who has Asperger’s syndrome. “I feel kind of nervous going to school,” he adds, while wandering dejectedly outside his home. “I like learning, but I have trouble making friends.”
Like many children, Alex tries to protect his parents—after all, they have just moved to a new school district.
The shame and humiliation of public abuse generally makes it hard for kids to communicate or get help.
But after seeing the raw footage of the abuse on the school bus, Alex’s parents nervously visit his middle school to complain. The vice principal, however, cuts them off. “I’ve been on that bus,” she says, “and they’re just as good as gold,” before brightly changing the subject to photos of her grandchildren.
Also in denial is the Georgia school superintendent for Tyler’s school, who insists the school doesn’t have problems with bullies.
Adults in the film have a hard time knowing how to respond. In the words of one Murray County spokesman at a hearing about Tyler’s death, “This is an awfully complicated and difficult issue.”