Bully, the Documentary: Painful film is a must-see for teachers and students alike

Harvard Education Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 3
May/June 2012

Bully, the Documentary

Painful film is a must-see for teachers and students alike

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 stories
Bully 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.”
A lesson for everyone
Adults have always had trouble knowing how to support and protect bullied children. Most of the commonly used advice to bullied kids minimizes the problem or blames the victim. Just think, how many times have your heard parents or teachers offering this kind of counsel:

Just walk away. You’re being oversensitive. It happened to me at your age. You must have done something to provoke it. It wouldn’t happen if you had friends. You’re too geeky. Dress differently. Fight back. You need to learn how to solve your own problems. How do we know what happened if we didn’t see it? 

Better curriculum is out there. Nan Stein, senior research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women, has written textbook guides on bullying and its related sibling, sexual harassment, in schools. She says school leaders need to know how to talk about bullying. “They need to know how to define it and how to build the policy to address it.” 

Stein has found the most effective responses include building-wide interventions that deal with bullying in all its forms: hazing, sexual harassment, cyberbullying, gay bashing, and race-based hate crimes. “Both victims—and bystanders—must feel empowered to come forward,” she says. “They must feel listened to, and they must feel protected when speaking up." 

New anti-bullying laws (enacted in all states except Montana) help. They assert that students are entitled to a safe learning environment and require schools to put anti-bullying measures in place. 

Lawsuits also help, if for no other reason than the fact that monetary penalties get the attention of school districts. This April, a Ramsey, N. J., school district agreed to a $4.2 million settlement for a middle-school student paralyzed by a bully’s assault.

Also in April, a Jefferson County, Ky., mother filed a restraining order against a fourth-grade classmate of her daughter’s when school authorities “failed to protect her.”

It is ironic that a film with this subject matter initially faced being barred from school screenings when the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an R rating for swearwords—as if dirty words could somehow be more disturbing than the content of the film. Only after a concerted lobbying campaign and the removal of three words did the ratings board lower it to PG-13. 

Educators should see this film, but why stop there? This is a film that middle-schoolers should also see. Children are sensitive to issues of fairness and justice, and they are articulate on these topics. Screening Bully might generate one of the most interesting conversations—about power, group behavior, victimhood, empathy, and courage—that students could have all year. 

Colleen Gillard is a freelance writer and contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.

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