On Tuesday evening, the auditorium at the headquarters of the NEA was packed for a viewing of the new film by Lee Hirsch, "Bully." It is a powerful examination of the experience and impact of bullying upon our school children.
Below the fold I will tell you a bit about the movie and the concerted roll out, which begins tomorrow in something like 43 cities (it has been in limited release since the end of March), the partnership organizations, and the particular event.
For now understand this - Bully is a movie that if you care about kids you SHOULD see, as soon as possible. But be prepared. It will be a blow to your solar plexus.
The film focuses on five families. That is, in two cases on families which have lost children to suicide because they were bullied, and have decided to fight back against bullying as long as they can. It also provides focus on three young people who themselves have been subjected to bullying, including film on others in their family.
What is especially disturbing is this - Hirsch got a great deal of access to film in one school system, Sioux City Iowa, including in the school and on the school bus, as well as in the family of one young man. Students knew they were being filmed. Yet they felt free to torment Alex - hitting him, threatening him, stabbing him with pencils. It became so bad that at one point the film goes to a black screen with white lettering while it informs the audience that the film company found what it was recording so disturbing that they showed what they had both to Alex's family and to school authorities.
Let me place the viewing I attended in context. It was an invitation only event in the auditorium of the National Education Association. Before the film there were remarks from several people. A few selections:
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (which co-sponsored this viewing), noted "- “This is what we should be doing. This is what the community of educators should be doing about children.... What this represents tonight is our mutual and collective values to ensure that we keep our children safe.”
Russlyn Ali,Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights,made clear the Department of Education is going to do all it can to address the issue of bullying. In her remarks she noted "It should go without saying that if children do not feel safe they cannot learn ... it is about the condition of learning that we are focusing on.... Too often these stories go unnoticed .... " Ali could not stay for the discussion after the movie , but added "What we are seeing in the movie tonight is tragic not just for our student but for their teachers, for the adults in the school."
Lee Hirsch, director of the film (which was produced after following people during one school year), said “ I am so full of hope that our nation is ready to turn the corner on bullying.” He noted that the film focuses on youth who want to change the narrative.
I mentioned that this preview/viewing is part of a rollout. This is being done by a large number of organizations that are coordinating their efforts. Besides the two national teachers union, the education partners includeFacing History and Ourselves, Education.COm, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the outreach partners include the Anti-Defamation League, the National School Climate Center, America's Promise Alliance, the Human Rights Campaign, PFLGA, GLSEN and Autism Speaks (there are others). I should also mention the National Center for Learning Disabilities, whose executive Director James Wendorf was on the discussion panel after the viewing.
I think the trailer will give you some sense of the power of the film. There are also other videos available on-line.
A lot of people learned about the film when the MPAA wanted to rate the film R, which would have meant that students who really needed to see it would have been excluded. The pushback included a Change.Org petition organized by a young woman who had experienced bullying herself. You can get a sense of that by looking (after the unfortunate commercial) by folllowing this link for a piece at the Alex Witt show.
(by the way, you can in this google search find some other relevant video).
A few comments about the discussion afterwards, from my notes. It was lead by Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and MS-NBC. Besides Dennis Van Roekel, President of the NEA, Weingarten, Hirshc, and Wendorf, it also included Jackie Libby, mother of Alex, one child featured prominently in the video - he is the one who gets bullied on the bus. It also included Katie Butler, the young lady who organized the petition to the MPAA.
One line from the film that I wrote down verbatim, and I do not remember who offered it, was this:
“if bartenders are responsible for somebody who gets drunk and goes out and kills somebody, what about someone being responsible for the death of this precious child?”One issue strongly addressed in the film, and which came up both in the comments in the discussion afterward and in questions from several parents of children who had been bullied, was the lack of seriously addressing the issue on the part of too many adults. I know in the brief discussions I have had with my own students, some are told that this is simply a process of growing up. Others are told that boys are like this (although some of the worst bullying I have seen is by middle school girls). We have a long tradition in many parts of our society of different kinds of hazing. It is only in the past few decades that we have established strong legal restrictions on the kinds of hazing that used to be common in the process of trying join college fraternities, and we unfortunately, the Tailhook Scandal nothwithstanding, seem to tolerate bullying in various forms in our military, especially as part of joining many elite units.
In the discussion afterwards, Randi Weingarten emphasized the importance of telling stories to help people understand and connect. She was quite insistent that we cannot accept the notion so often used to rationalize that "boys will be boys." We need to change the whole culture of this kind of thing being acceptable. Dennis Van Roekel insisted we have to talk about this as a group and a community, that people need to know what to do, which may require training.
If I may jump ahead, in informal discussion afterwards I spoke with Weingarten. I noted that as a teacher in Maryland were I to fail to take action to report to proper authorities any evidence of abuse of a child I could lose my teaching certificate. Randi told me that unfortunately the rules are not consistent on this across the country, which is why many administrators tend to downplay reports made to them of bullying. They also worry about damaging the reputation of the school, which seems to place that as a higher value than the damage being done to the kids.
Jackie, the mother of Alex, felt frustrated in her dealings with the Assistant principal. Jackie acknowledged her own mistakes, but felt the AP was unwilling to admit hers. She was also furious that the solution to the torment her child was experiencing on the bus was to move him to another bus.
By now I hope you have a sense of the intensity of the discussion. At one point Capehart asked the audience how many had themselves been bullied in school, and half the hands went up. Let me note that the audience included many people prominent in educational circles, and a fair number of well-known journalists who cover education. Among those I saw were Richard Kahlenberg, who write the biography of Al Shanker; Claudio Sanchez, who reports on education for NPR; Ann Bryant, Executive Director of the National School Board Association; Sam Chaltain, writer of books on education who also does pieces for CNN; and so on.
The cost of bullying is sometimes tragic. We are soon going to be upon the anniversary of Columbine. Remember that the shooters were subject to bullying. Few who are victims resort to violence.
The film focuses on students who resort to suicide. While even one such suicide should be unacceptable, suicide is not the price paid by many victims.
Too many simply find reasons not to come to school.
Or while in school they go through the day terrified, just trying to survive, thus not learning academically.
There are many needs that our society must address, and resources are notably scarce, especially in a time of economic distress for many, and in the face of concerted efforts to undercut public institutions such as our public schools.
Yet if we do not address the issue of bullying, we are damaging our society. We are losing the worth of too many of our young people.
Let me close by offering the words of someone I greatly respect, Lily Eskelsen, VP of the NEA, from a post at her blog, Lily's Blackboard, which I hope you will read in its entirety.
It is titled Go to the Movies. Save a Life.
This Friday you need to go to see the movie Bully.Yes it is.
You need to fill up the minivan, the truck, the car, the bus, walk, run, and just go to see the movie Bully.
You need to take your kids and your grand-kids and your nieces and nephews. You need to take the church groups and the Little League team and the chess club and the Gay-Straight Alliance club and the scout troop. You need to go if you’re a teacher or a parent or a coach or bus driver.
You need to go. It’s that important. Really. That important.
Let me offer one more paragraph from Lily:
A bully steals a piece of the victim’s soul. If someone stole that child’s lunch money, there would be a dozen adults making sure the thief was caught and punished and the child was protected. How much more valuable is a child’s soul? How much greater a loss is that child’s self-respect, and sense of safety? Shouldn’t a dozen adults be running to protect those treasures?This movie is powerful. Yet it barely begins to address the issue that is confronting so many of our students in our schools, and also so many of the adults - in the school and in the families.
A bully steals a piece of the victim’s soul.
We need to stop that theft. Now.