After weeks of controversy over its MPAA rating, the documentary Bully is in theaters now. We asked two educators who have already seen the film to write about their reactions and the lessons they'll take back to their own schools. Read a principal's take.
Although the film includes language and situations that most would probably consider adult or offensive, as a teacher at a Los Angeles school, I can tell you that the content is what thousands of bullied kids go through daily in schools across the country.
The film begins with the story of 17-year-old Tyler Lee Long, who ended his life as a result of ongoing bullying. His parents and family share details about his life, talk about the day they found him hanging in his closet, and explain how they're working to make sure his voice is heard. Throughout the film, the audience is introduced to the stories of other bullied youth, some of whom made national headlines for similarly horrific reasons.
Bully also puts the spotlight on the reactions of school administrators and city officials in towns where students and parents reported unsafe situations and instances of bullying. A middle school assistant principal is the administrator featured most prominently in the film. When students told her they’d been bullied, her responses ran the gamut. Sometimes she facilitated discussions in which they could share the problem, how they felt, and their proposed consequences; at other points she resorted to the ineffective response I've seen too many educators fall back on: asking kids to shake hands.
Although the schools I've worked at have not seen a suicide as a direct result of bullying, I've seen students create exclusionary cliques, engage in name calling, and bully each other using technology, among a host of other targeted behaviors. I firmly believe consequences for bullying have to be firm and swift—and students need to be able to do more than hope that maybe someone is taking care of a bullying situation. But the challenge for schools is that we can’t violate the privacy rights of the bully by sharing the outcomes of closed-door discipline meetings with bullied students.
The goal, though, is to ensure that those discipline meetings never have to happen. We can only do that by making sure schools are free from bullying in the first place. My school has already committed a significant amount of time and energy to discussing bullying with students and creating a safe and accepting school environment. Last week an administrator and members of the teaching staff got together and watched Bullied, a 34-minute documentary that is free for educators through Teaching Tolerance. We’re also planning a week in which teachers will show that film to students, and trained student facilitators will lead small group discussions with their peers.
While I'm glad we're taking those steps, seeing Bully renewed my commitment to ask more questions of my class and talk with students who, for whatever reason, seem to be targeted by other kids. In Bully, friendships serve as a lifeline for 16-year-old Kelby during her toughest days after she came out as a lesbian in her small Oklahoma town.
I've paired new students with classmates I believe will be good influences, and I've warned students when I see negative effects of certain friendships. But Kelby's story made me realize that in my years of teaching, although I have discussed the qualities of good friends and healthy relationships with my students, and I have not taught them how to make friends—particularly with kids who are different from them. I need to do more to engage my students in discussions about how to do that.
Of course, thanks to that R rating, the people who really need to see this film—students themselves—probably won't. The showing I attended in Los Angeles was full of educators and elderly couples. There were no teenagers in the crowd. Still, my school's example proves that if teachers and administrators want to take bullying seriously and make schools a safe, inclusive place for all students, they don’t have to wait to see the film before taking action.