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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Bully – How about a 3rd act with some solutions?

April 21, 2012

In one of the opening school scenes of the new documentary Bully, a kid with a shaken expression and an ice pack on his head is approached by his school principal who asks, “Oh, what happened to you?” To which the kid replies, “Johnny shoved my head against a nail.”

I realize school principals see and hear a lot from students during a typical day and much of it is innocuous. As school administrators, they have to be able to differentiate between ‘drama’ vs the real stuff or they’d never make it to 3rd period with their sanity in tact.  But an upset child with an ice pack requires attention, so the principal examines the back of the kid’s head and blithely reports, ‘Well, I don’t see a hole.”

That was a tip off that there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of empathy from this administrator. In fact, I was half-expecting she’d ask, “And what did you do to make Johnny so mad?” Instead she shooed the kid off to wherever. Another bullying incident swept aside.

That frustrated me. In fact, the whole audience seemed frustrated by a lot of what we saw in Bully. Not that the scenes with the victims weren’t compelling. Oh they were! I winced, I hid my eyes, I cried. But mostly, my fellow-movie goers and I sat incredulous at the consistent insensitivity of folks who are responsible for the safety and well-being of the students in their care.

Which brings up the scenes of violence on the school bus. Truthfully, I’ve seen much worse filmed by security cameras on school buses. But the bus footage in Bully was made by the filmmakers. They were right there, witnessing a child (Alex) being pushed, hit, shoved, choked, and stabbed with a pencil on numerous occasions. I watch Nature documentaries and I understand that when the lion is hunting the gazelle the filmmakers do not interfere with the ‘natural order’ of things. If the prey gets caught, the camera keeps rolling. But we’re talking about people standing by and watching while a child is being hurt. The film crew continued filming for the benefit of their movie. That’s repugnant. At one point, it must have been too much for them because they put up an inter title saying “Because the violence was escalating and we were concerned for Alex’s safety, we showed the footage to his parents and the school administration.”

What the hell took them so long?! Standing back and filming this cruelty felt like a major betrayal to Alex and his parents, who trusted the filmmakers and opened themselves to them . Where were they when Alex needed help? Apparently more concerned about their movie than the child.

The film had its moments. Who could not be moved by a memorial service for a victim of bullying? Or by a parent choking on her broken heart as she describes the angelic child who was her son had until she found him hanging from a rope in the closet? But these scenes do not translate into change. And that’s why I’m frustrated. That’s why I’ve had it with feel good rallies, candle-light vigils, t-shirts, plastic bracelets and balloon releases.

I wanted more from this film. It was so hyped after an online petition to get the rating changed from R to PG-13 went viral. Hell, I signed it along with 500,000 other people because we felt so strongly that it needed to be seen by as many kids as possible. All of us were hopeful that this film would add something new to the search for solutions. But the film showed absolutely no evidence that any school is doing anything to teach students that cruelty is unacceptable. And yet there are plenty of schools doing the right thing. Schools where administrators, teachers, counselors, parents and students work together to create an accepting school culture– one that does not tolerate harassment. Some of these schools changed themselves after a tragedy. They took responsibility for what happened in their midst and they learned how to become a more caring place. Other schools have never experienced a student being driven to suicide by bullying, but they work proactively on this issue every day, so it won’t happen there.

Aside from the courageous leadership and determination of the parents of two bully-cide victims in the film, there wasn’t a lot to feel inspired by here. And I wanted to feel inspired. All of us who care about kids need to feel inspired and motivated, otherwise we might as well just join the chorus of those who say “Kids will be kids and there’s nothing we can do about our students’ behavior. Let them work it out themselves.” By not providing a look at a positive role model school, it felt like the filmmakers had no hope to offer.

Look, I’m grateful that this film was made. I applaud the filmmakers for creating a free teacher’s guide. I fervently hope that schools everywhere are screening Bully and that follow-up discussions with students and teachers are ongoing. But this isn’t like the early days of the AIDS epidemic. We know a lot about bullying. We know what kinds of environments help it thrive and we know what it takes to teach kids to treat each other with respect. The challenge, it seems, is showing the leadership at school and at home, to consistently walk the walk.

Filed under: Cruel's Not Cool,Parenting — Tags: , , — Annie @ 11:09 pm
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19 Comments »

  1. I really need to see this film. I’m disturbed by your description of the filmmakers continuing observations without stepping in. And I have to wonder (not having seen it), how does it reflect on both the bullies and the filmmakers that both participated DESPITE being in each other’s presence. As someone who has often stepped in despite not knowing either participant, I find it very upsetting. I always ask: If it were my child, would I want someone to step in? The answer is invariably yes.

    Comment by Kristin — April 22, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  2. HI Kristen,Thanks for your comment. I wondered the same thing. In fact, I had the thought that the aggressive kids on the bus just might have been ‘turning up the volume” because of the presence of the camera crew. I wonder if there is a “Making of…” piece of this story? I’m going to do some research.

    Comment by Annie — April 22, 2012 @ 8:14 am

  3. While it may be true we know a lot about how to control bullying, there are a heck of a lot of schools out there that don’t believe that they have a pervasive problem! They have to admit to the problem before they will even look for solutions. Maybe this movie can help them see their own shortcomings and the need for something to be done!

    Comment by Karen — April 22, 2012 @ 9:35 am

  4. Being someone with an education and experience in journalistic film making, I understand that the documentarian should not get involved because that changes the reality of the story. That being said, when a 12 year old is getting stabbed with a pencil, they should have put the camera down and tried to prevent it.

    Comment by Daniel — April 22, 2012 @ 9:39 am

  5. I thought the movie was wrongly named; it should have been called “Victim.” There was no insight into why the bullies would say the horrible things they did. It was beyond my understanding that adults didn’t seem to hear them, or be shocked by them.

    I’m writing a book about bullying (From Risk to Resilience, coming out from Hazelden next year) that explores the slippery slope of fear. I am so impressed with the programs in my local schools that fight against bullying – they ARE there, and I would like to see a film about them. Perhaps a sequel, if not a third act!

    Thanks for this excellent post!

    Comment by another Kristen — April 22, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  6. HI Daniel, Agreed! One’s humanity has to trump “the product.” Interesting to think that they were going for a message of “standing up for what’s right.” and yet, in that instance, the filmmakers themselves stayed silent for much too long.

    Comment by Annie — April 22, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  7. Hello, Another Kristen.
    I”m encouraged to hear about the schools in your area that are effectively working to challenge the Culture of Cruelty. I’d be very interested in reviewing your book when it becomes available. I, myself, am working on a parenting book called Teaching Kids To Be Good People. I wish you well with the rest of your writing process!

    Comment by Annie — April 22, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  8. This post makes me shiver. You’re right in that just watching it happen and seeing the results, though it will raise awareness in those who don’t realise the extent of the problem, won’t do anything to help. I just got the final approval to publish my young adult magical realism book on the topic – and it does offer solutions in fiction form, so kids will read it and maybe take some of the ideas on board.

    The level of bullying in the book is mild compared to what was in the film, but it’s the kind of thing a lot of kids face. And it’s the level at which I know from experience the ideas in the book have actually helped kids. This book is an empowering one with solutions for both the bully and the victim & it doesn’t rely on going to the authorities at all – how often do kids tell us that that only makes it worse.

    The book, called Give me a Break, is coming out in early June, There’s more info about it here. http://tahlianewland.com/give-me-a-break/

    I’ll be in touch to ask if you know of any resources it would be good to add to the end of the book.

    Comment by Tahlia Newland — April 22, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  9. I was going to go see this but after your description I am not going to bother. I do feel it probably needs to be show in all schools. My daughter is in grade three and we have had one horrible year because of one boy in particular and his little gang of friends. I always go to the school with my daughter so that all the kids know me. I tried really hard to be friendly to this one boy. The first time I tried he told me off went to the back of the line and said to a friend “I am going to box that bitch” referring to me. All because I was nice to him. He continued swearing over the course of the year at my daughter, the f word, b word, lesbian etc. He also assaulted her. Kicked her in the back and put gum in her hair. I was constantly in the principles office. He was punished each time and a letter sent home. I asked he be expelled, but I got a story of meeting all kinds of kids needs blah, blah blah. This past week we found out he has left the school! Ya! But I also found out from an “insider” that he was never supposed to be at our school. His mother used the grandmother’s address for our area and put him in our school with his siblings. Then she decided to move him back to his home school an hour away! Now ask me how I feel. I am sure the principal knew. I feel like my daughter’s emotional well being was sacrified for this other kid. Who even the principal admitted of all the kids he has seen over the years this one was especially a worry. So my daughter despite all the support we gave her, including me finally sitting in the classroom with her. Oh, my god, she went through all this for what???? She has a sleeping problem, her appettite has changed, she won’t get up in the morning, for what?? I am seriously considering homeschooling. Leaving my child in a “box” with a group of kids with differing problems and parents who don’t walk the walk — apparently — I can do a better job of teaching her at home. Drastic. maybe. But I didn’t get bullied like this till grade 9. That left a big enough mark on me. What is it going to do do a grade three girl??? Her self-esteem was attacked, she is according to this other person stupid, ugly a misfit. Ya right, well that is all – I think I need to get a kleenex.

    Comment by Cindy A. Swartz — April 22, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

  10. Hello Tahlia,
    There obviously is no ‘one correct solution” to the problem of peer-to-peer harassment. Fiction can be a very powerful positive influence on young people as can role play, and honest “Let’s Get Real” conversations facilitated by teachers and counselors. Congratulations on getting the go-ahead on your book. Good luck with it!

    Comment by Annie — April 22, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  11. Hello Cindy,
    What you describe is heart-wrenching. I’m not going to comment on the school’s approach to the boy in question. I’ll only say that he obvious is troubled and by not getting the help he needs to deal with his anger and aggression, the adults in his life are failing him.
    As for your daughter, it sounds like she needs some help. The symptoms you describe: sleeping problems, change in appetite, reluctance to get up in the morning… these signs of stress need to be addressed with a professional. Please seek out a recommendation from your health care provider for a family therapist or a psychologist who specializes in working with young children. By helping her work through the trauma of what happened, she can regain her self-esteem and positive outlook.

    I hope this helps.

    In friendship,
    Annie

    Comment by Annie — April 22, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

  12. I wonder if this movie would be effective in stopping bullying. IMHO, children who bully KNOW they are hurting others and might even enjoy it. Does this movie ever attempt to explain that this behavior is sick? Not cool? Does it ever address the WHY of bullying and confront the bullies?

    Comment by jane myer perrine — April 23, 2012 @ 9:06 am

  13. I’m not sure that all aggressive children “know” their behavior hurts others, Jane. And I’m also not convinced that they “enjoy” causing pain. I think in many cases, aggressive kids have been hurt themselves and are unaware of the effects of their choices. In many cases, they are simply choosing a behavior that has been “successful” in degrading them, so they mimic it in a wrong-headed attempt to connect with their peers. Also, hurt kids do not trust others, so for them, aggression is their way of “keeping safe,” as in “if I push you away, with my words and my fists, you can’t disappoint me.” To answer your other questions, no, the movie did not attempt to explain the motivation of bullies. Even when school officials had kids in one-on-on conversations, they did not use the opportunity to teach the kids in any constructive or insightful way. As an educator, that’s what frustrated me the most. The missed opportunities on the part of the educators in the film and on the part of the filmmakers.

    Comment by Annie — April 23, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  14. I haven’t seen the documentary but I was a high school teacher for 17 years. The culture creates a code of silence. It’s easier to look the other way and pretend. I haven’t taught since 2001, but I’m still haunted by some of the things that went on. It’s the culture that allowed Jerry Sandusky to continue having contact with young boys long after those around him knew things were not right.

    Comment by Patricia Zick — April 25, 2012 @ 4:10 am

  15. I have yet to see the film, but your criticism makes a lot of sense to me. We know that bullying happens, it’s bad. This is not news. And we know a lot about how to prevent it. Let’s share the wealth.

    Comment by Carolyn Stone — April 25, 2012 @ 8:40 am

  16. Thank you for your reply to my comment. I appreciated your points. Because I know that verbal bullying is a “keep myself safe” behavior, I should have understood that physical is as well. I’m not sure I made my point well, but my worry was that a bully seeing this movie would not understand that this is a horrible, hurtful thing to do but might actually feel empowered by seeing such behavior and the effect on the one being bullied. And yes, this should have been what others call a “teachable moment.” Again, thanks!

    Jane

    Comment by jane myer perrine — April 28, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  17. You’re welcome, Jane. And thank you for clarifying what you meant. While the film missed (for me) opportunities for discussing effective solutions, I believe that it made it undeniably clear that bullying causes horrible pain. Aggressive kids, in their heart of hearts, couldn’t miss seeing that pain up on the screen. Anyway, my hope is that open and honest discussions follow screenings and that the teaching doesn’t end there.

    Comment by Annie — April 28, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  18. I have only see the trailer for this movie, wasn’t sure if it was drama or a documentary. Anyway, I flinched when I watched the trailor. I have heard enough stories about kids dealing with bullies and committing suicide, that I would agree that this type of terrorism must be removed from schools. And that is what bullying is, a kind of terrorism.

    Comment by Patricia — May 8, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

  19. Hi Patricia, yes, I flinched winced and covered my eyes during the trailer. But I knew that the filmmakers wanted the trailer to communicate a strong visceral message. I went to see the film because I hoped they’d focus on more than the suffering. They did and it’s a film all students (grades 6 and up) ought to see and talk about. Could they have done more in the direction of showing schools effectively working on the problem. Yes! But they added to the conversation and that’s worthwhile.

    Comment by Annie — May 8, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

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