My 5-hour trip to a New York theater this weekend was the longest I have ever traveled to watch a movie, but the 1.5-hour “Bully” film was an even longer emotional journey.
It’s hard to sit in a theater and eat popcorn as kids are being brutalized and taunted in front of your eyes. “This can’t be happening,” you think, before remembering your childhood – it does. This isn’t a John Hughes’ movie. Jokes about “geeks” aren’t funny. It’s real life and kids go home thinking their lives are not worth living.
Alex, 12, is stabbed with pencils, strangled, punched and pushed, but it’s what he says that makes you really cry. When asked how the abuse makes him feel, Alex replies, “I don’t feel anything anymore.”
The film shifts between the stories of five children, capturing the struggles of these different families and their powerful stories in context of a systemic crisis. With more than 13 million children falling victim to bullying each year, the problem transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders.
It forces us to look at greater issues, including violence, homophobia, and a pervasive “kids will be kids” attitude that perpetuates bullying culture in schools, rather than focusing our anger on the faceless child issuing beat-downs on the skinny kid in glasses who has trouble making friends.
One principal “handles” a bullying complaint by forcing a handshake, then lecturing the child who has just been bullied that his unwillingness to shake his bully’s hand makes him equally bad.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said the girl sitting beside me in the theater, echoing audience sentiment.
Parents meet with this same inept school administrator to tell her that their child is being bullied on the bus. “I’ve been on that bus, they are just as good as gold,” the principal tells Alex’s mom who is crying because she doesn’t know how she can keep her son safe. As NPR reported, the principal delivered the “pacifying ‘we’ll take care of it’ speech” parents attest hearing “all the time right before nothing happens.”
Watching “Bully,” viewers are offered a glimpse into the hopelessness these children and parents feel.
They are not alone. Bullying among students was reported on a daily or weekly basis in 1 of 4 public schools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The film wisely does not offer a single solution to “end” the nation’s bullying crisis because maybe there isn’t one answer. However, students, parents and school officials should know that schools are obligated under the federal law of Title IX to protect students from some forms of bullying and harassment.
“Title IX prohibits discrimination, including bullying and harassment, on the basis of sex in publicly funded education,” NWLC fellow Devi Rao explained in our “Ask The Experts” series. “If your school knows about the harassment, then it must do something to investigate the harassment and protect you.”
“In most cases, disciplining kids is not sufficient,” Rao said in an interview. “You can’t just label it (bullying or kids being kids) and say it’s not a civil rights problem because it can be.”
The law might protect a student like Kelby, 16, who was tormented by teachers and students alike after coming out as a lesbian in Oklahoma’s “Bible Belt.” Kelby’s father, a former Sunday school teacher, says he never understood the expression “you never know what someone’s been through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” until he had a gay child.
Changing the culture in our nation’s schools starts with proactively changing the lens through which students see the world, and students watching this movie may rethink how they interact with peers. By viewing the problem through the eyes of these children and their families, this film should inspire serious discussion on how to change a school culture using programs and public policy.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011 in the House and Senate aims to do this by requiring local educational agencies to clearly prohibit bullying and harassment in discipline policies, report information on youth bullying and harassment and assess bullying and harassment prevention programs in elementary and secondary schools.
As a borderline idealist believing so strongly in the power of the individual story, I have hope that policymakers, parents, teachers, school administrators and students will be inspired to passionately prevent bullying and work toward ending the crisis facing our education system, so we all can get back to our popcorn, knowing the future of our country is safe on the school bus and in the classroom.