Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

April 2, 2012

The Bully Movie: A Tool for Beginning

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 1:47 pm
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       I let the tears dry and reflected a bit before writing this.   From the opening moments of the Bully movie, my heart was breaking.  The stories woven through the film make very real the unbearable pain bullying leaves in its wake.  The NYC theater was filled, but it is not enough.  Everyone, every child, parent, educator, human being needs to become aware of the epidemic raging through our country and claiming our children.  For building this awareness, and telling victims’ stories with such care, the Bully movie deserves acclaim and thanks.  It may be impossible, however, for any film to fully capture the complexity of bullying, its causes, effects and what can be done to address it.

I went to the movie with my husband, at his insistence that we trek into the city for it’s initial release.  I was interested in his reaction, since I am so immersed in bully prevention work and therefore not they typical viewer.  He wondered why all the stories shared were in rural towns.  “Are there no big city bullies?” he asked.  It seemed to him that there was greater focus on physical bullying and harassment, that the two living victims most fully portrayed were notably different from peers; one with limited social skills, the other a lesbian teen.  He wondered, as do I, if this will allow students and parents sitting in big city theaters, or their own small towns to feel these things can’t happen here, it’s not like this in our schools.

Dorothy Espelage and Susan Swearer, two eminent US researchers on bullying and bully prevention have emphasized a growing international understanding that bullying is a phenomenon that is embedded in a larger system.  Since bullying is about those with more power hurting those with less power, one needs to consider how systems are created or maintained that allow a non-democratic, non-egalitarian reality, a place where some are valued more than others.  The Bully movie provides a window into a few schools and districts, and the view we get is pretty damning.  The audience in our theater let out a shared moan as the school principal showed herself to be nothing short of moronic in her approach to bullying.  Over and over the film told us of schools doing nothing to stop the harm done to their students, of parents who do not stop their bullying children, of police and government looking the other way.  There is no doubt that schools, parents, government agencies can and must do more.  But I was very uncomfortable with the film’s over-identification of easy villains.

Bullying is extremely complex and embedded in the culture and system where it occurs.  It is easy to blame schools and lampoon administrators.  After all, if they are to blame, all we have to do is fire the bad guys and hire new ones.  If we need better laws, we simply lobby our representatives to pass them.  Everything we know about bullying, however, says peer bystanders are critical.  When in the film we see a busload of students torment a victim, or sit idly by while their classmates do so, the administrator focuses on finding and punishing the bullies.  What of all the students who watched this occur for weeks and said nothing?  They quietly allowed the bullies to continue.  They callously ignored the victim, cementing his status as unimportant and non-valuable.  They did not reveal what was happening to adults, serving, although unwittingly, as the bullies’ henchmen, hiding violent actions from adult view.  Laying “blame” places other than with peer bystanders is common because I think it is easier for us to conceive of replacing administrators and making laws than it is for us to imagine creating a cadre of caring bystanders.

I have the privilege to work with schools on bully prevention regularly.  I say privilege because while we certainly work to improve the lives of victims and correct the actions of bullies, we do the difficult but crucially important work of creating socially responsible, empathic bystanders who can and do make all the difference.  We do not accomplish this with moving assemblies, balloon releasing ceremonies, or powerful films.  Those impactful events may start the discussion, but they are too quickly forgotten.  Building caring bystanders takes hours of teachable moments, weeks of well-thought out lesson plans to build concrete skills, and a school and community commitment to years of building a culture where every child is equally valued, and values others equally.

The Bully movie’s focus is so clearly on documenting pain and loss, helping us see the devastating cost of bullying.  I hope many will see it.  I hope after their tears dry they will carry with them the stories in the film, knowing that there are many more stories, very different stories, in big cities and small towns, about regular students and those who are different, with good administrators and bad ones, all struggling through a problem that is both prevalent and complex.  Unfortunately, the Bully movie barely uses its teachable moment to tell us what to do.  There are rallies, and hints that we should stand and speak for the silent.  The key, I believe, is that we need to stand and speak for everyone.  We need to engage in ourselves and our children a level of intolerance for cruelty, exclusion, and the abuse of power to hurt those who are weaker or have less power.  We need a generation that cannot look away, or walk away from the suffering of others.

As parents and educators, it is easy to feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the task before us.  The parent of a child lost to bullying declares “I will not be silent”, reminding us that we must raise our parental and educator voices.  We must teach over and over, again and again, – empathy, social responsibility, humanity.  I have seen what empowered children and teens can do when we give them the tools.  I have seen what parents and educators can do to create environments that value the value of each individual.  One of the film’s victims says “I don’t believe in luck, but I believe in hope”.   Like the parents who have lost so much, we cannot afford silence.  But like the victim who believes in hope, neither can we afford paralysis or despair.  The lights came up.  The movie ended and my red eyes have dried.  The work is just beginning.

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