What Not to Do About Bullying

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The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary Bully, an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed Bully the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock Hunger Games off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.

Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. Bully is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don't think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.

The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, "Didn't they realize they were being filmed?" I applaud the filmmakers' ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex's school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, "A kid slammed my head into a nail!" The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, "I'll bet you didn't like that, did you?" Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, "He's such an unhappy child." In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it's his fault. "Why don't you just get along?" she coos after the bully leaves. "He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends." The boy, nervous and confused, responds, "The cops told us to stay apart." This principal hasn't a clue. Not a clue.

When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. "Is it an ongoing problem in our school?" she asks rhetorically. "No it is not," she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, "Buses are notorious for abuse," and offers, "I can put him on another bus" — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), "When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn't take anyone home until everyone settled down." Isn't that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, "I've ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold." Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!

The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, "I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now." But when Ja'Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, "At least it's attention. I don't mind it that much." His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn't speak up sooner, he responds, "Because you didn't do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head."

Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

While Bully is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can't get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider Bully must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.

What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex's head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn't hearing Alex's principal say, "Boys will be boys." It was the sight of Alex's own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she's embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He's surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.



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Comments

Visitor

Having been both the victim of bullies, and truth be told, a bully of another boy, I can state with confidence that the problem of bullying is caused by a lack of authority and accountability in the world that children inhabit. There are scores of reasons why children bully one another, but the truth is that people bully one another because they can. The presence of an authority figure that permits one child to be taunted and bullied by others, but prohibits him (or her) from retaliating against the tormentor just encourages the bully.
I bullied another boy because he had been beating up younger children. At the time, it seemed like "What goes around, comes around." It seemed like I was giving him his just desserts. In retrospect, when the tables were turned, his victims delighted in my verbal and physical abuse of their tormentor. The bullied became the bully with remarkable facility.
In middle school, I was bullied by an older boy who targeted me in an attempt, I think, to divert the attention of people likely to bully him. I armed myself with a piece of 1/2" water pipe. He caught me at the bus stop, knocked my books and notebook binder to the ground and had me by the coller and was pummelling me. I struck him in the knee with the pipe and he went down squalling like a little girl. That moment of victory has stayed with me my entire life. The temptation to beat him while he was down was tremendous.
The next time I saw that boy in the hallway at school, he limped to the other side of the hallway and would not meet my eyes. I have never allowed anyone to bully me or anyone in my family since that day. Am I a bully? I refuse to back down from people who attempt to intimidate me. Including ineffectual, liberal, can't-we-all-just-get-along school officials who punish the victims of bullies for legitimately defending themselves.

MKA

I don't claim to know the answer to bullying. I also am not big on giving advice, especially unsolicited. Having stated that, I will say when I had a problem with a boy in the ninth grade picking on me I went to my dad in search for help. I remember what he told me because I swore I would never give my son the same advice. "When he comes up to you, just punch him in the face". If I was capable of such retaliatory actions I wouldn't have been seeking counsel on the matter. Looking back I am not sure which was worse, the bully making me feel weak or my dad confirming it.

Don Crawford

I've been in education for a long time, since I was a child in fact. As a child I was bullied a lot, but the other day I remembered a childhood incident in which I was a participant in bullying someone else. (I was ashamed of myself even at the time.) To reduce the bullying, I was encouraged by my parents to stand up for myself and they accepted that when I did so I got in trouble for fighting. But after I fought back it did reduce the bullying.
It is annoying to see the rising concern over bullying as if it were a new flu epidemic. You wouldn't believe the number of workshops, school assembly purveyors, and school programs to one can purchase that purport to eliminate bullying. Every school system in Oregon is now being required to create an anti-bullying policy.
Such policies will do little to eliminate the problem of bullying, especially when public schools are required to educate everyone regardless of how mean they are, and all students are required to attend the local public school no matter how much they are victimized.
In our charter schools, our small size and very close supervision can reduce the obvious and violent bullying. But we still get reports from parents who claim their child has been bullied by mean things said to them. More school choices could allow children to go to schools where intellect and character are more valued and where brutish students are expelled. But I seriously doubt that there will ever be a world in which no children have their feelings hurt by other children who wish to pick on them. That's just part of what it means to be human.

Marilyn

How is it going to stop when the worst bullies are the bureaucrats who work there. In 4 different states I saw the same thing and find bureaucrats fit the description by Cicero from 2,000 years ago.

"A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures whom bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?" —Marcus Tullius Cicero

All this obesity help is like putting band aids on cancer. The real cause of most of the obesity is the PTSD caused by the abuse in the government schools by the bureaucrats and until we end that nothing is going to help.

norman

Thanks for the review. I don't think I'll see the movie. Bullying is a fact of growing up and it's not going to stop. You say: "When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?" I don't have any statistics, but I'll bet the same exists at private schools. Luckily for you, you'll get to teach some of the bullies at Sing Sing where they belong. I bet you wonder how your Sing Sing Students could be in jail, they are so smart. Throw the bullies out of schools and let their parents home school them. That is truly the right decision.

Mark Uzick

I can see how a movie like this might make you uneasy. You come off sounding exactly like one of those clueless teachers or parents that Jo Ann Skousen refers to in this review; you obviously agree with them and sympathize with them more than the victims.

Visitor.

I always felt like my expierence in a government run inner city high school was much like being in prison. If you immediately let it know you are willing to fight the biggest, toughest person, you are left alone.

Now that I look back at it, 20 years later, it was very much like a prison. Constant police searches of lockers and personal property. Constant repression from authority figures. The only thing you need to do to graduate was to not bother the teachers and administration. A very horrible situation to put anyone in, let alone an innocent child, whose only digression is being born to poor parents.

Charter schools, and government funding of private schools will not solve this environment. Only total seperation of government and education will solve this issue. But middle class america is only interested in how they can get taxpayers to pay for their childerns education. Not how they can quit forcing others into such schools.

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