May 7, 2012

Battle to End Bullying

The Bully Project, a documentary and national outreach campaign, brings light to a dark topic

None too soon, bullying is part of the national conversation. To date, forty-eight states have passed anti-bullying legislation, including most recently Michigan in November 2011. Tragically, the impetus behind these laws is often a teenager driven to suicide by harassment in school or cyber-bullying. New Jersey’s anti-bullying law was amended and strengthened in 2010 after the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. That same tragedy also prompted the start of the It Gets Better Project, which has done so much to spotlight the physical and emotional persecution of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual young people by their peers.

Now a new documentary, titled simply, Bully, attempts to deepen public awareness of the problem while serving as a catalyst for new action. Released this spring, the film tells the story of five families affected by school bullying, including Alex, from Sioux City, Iowa. The filmmakers follow the then 12-year-old as he endures curses, insults, and threats on his daily bus ride to school. The harassment only escalates throughout the school year. There’s also the story of Kelby, a 16-year-old from Tuttle, Oklahoma, whose entire family faces an outpouring of hatred at school and from the community when she comes out as a lesbian.

Among the most heart-breaking stories are those of Kirk and Laura Smalley, whose 11-year-old son Ty committed suicide after years of abuse, and David and Tina, the parents of 17-year-old Tyler Long, who also took his own life. The film offers a vivid picture of the grief, anger, and determination of these parents as they try to hold school officials accountable for the death of their children. Probably most shocking to audiences will be some of the callous and wrongheaded responses from teachers and administrators, who respond with platitudes, excuses, and in some instances, hostility, to reports of bullied children.

In Bully, grieving parents fight for system-wide changes so that others won’t experience similar tragedies. While doing so, they run up against the argument that bullying is a natural and unavoidable part of growing up. The film counters that notion, suggesting that intimidation is not a necessary rite of childhood but something that schools allow to flourish. Bully then outlines steps that individuals, schools, and local governments can take to stop such harassment.

Along with the documentary, Bully’s director Lee Hirsch and writer Cynthia Lowen have launched The Bully Project, a coalition that hopes to screen the film to more than one million school children in its first year of release. The Bully Project will include supplemental classroom materials that explain to students how to respond to bullying they experience or witness. The Bully Project also seeks to compile a national database of resources and information about conditions in specific schools and school districts.

Bully is not always an easy film to watch, but it’s one that every parent needs to see. It’s also a terrific candidate for co-viewing with your kids. As the filmmakers so dramatically illustrate, even if your child is not a victim of bullying, we share a responsibility to protect those who are.

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