“Bully” Documentary a Catalyst for Action in Schools and Communities
By Tim Walker
In a scene in the acclaimed new documentary “Bully,” Kim Lockwood, asst. principal of East Middle school in Sioux City, Iowa, wanders down the hallway after comforting a bullied student and wonders aloud, “Tell me how to fix this. I don’t have any magic.” Later, the parents of 12-year-old Alex Libby meet with Lockwood about the constant abuse their son incurs on the school bus. Lockwood seems well-intentioned and concerned but is unable to provide solutions to calm the very real fears of Alex’s parents, who want the perpetrators taken off the bus.
It is scenes such as this that show how public schools aren’t doing enough to combat the bullying problem. The staff is seen as a little helpless but is unquestionably concerned about the plight of the students portrayed in the film. “Bully,” which follows the pain-filled lives of three students, makes it clear that schools, parents, and whole communities have to step up more forcefully.
How to reboot and refocus the response to the bullying epidemic was the focus of a panel discussion on Tuesday night at the National Education Association, following a special screening in advance of the film’s wide release on Friday. Participating in the discussion was NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, director Lee Hirsch, parent Jackie Libby, American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten and James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Van Roekel hailed “Bully” as a film “every educator in every school should see,” and emphasized the importance that schools help dispel the myth that bullying is just part of growing up. “Bully” spotlights how this “rite of passage” mindset completely undermines any prevention or anti-bullying enforcement.
Van Roekel cautioned that the national dialogue about bullying should avoid pointing the finger at the school system in an attempt to assign blame.
“Schools have to do things differently,” Van Roekel said. “But they need proper staff training and resources. All educators want to tackle this problem, but there is no shortcut.”
According to NEA research, 98 percent of school employees believe it is their job to intervene when they see bullying happening in their school. More than half of those surveyed (62%) indicate they have witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month. Further, 93 percent of school employees report their district has implemented a bullying prevention policy, but just over half (54%) said they have received training related to the policy. In March 2011, NEA launched the Bully Free: It Starts With Me campaign, which aims to identify and train caring adults in our schools and communities who are willing to stand out as someone pledged to help bullied students.
The film’s director, Lee Hirsch, agreed that bullying prevention and enforcement requires the involvement of the whole community “ecosystem” and that strong professional development resources and strategies have to be implemented in schools to provide the necessary tools for all staff members – teachers, bus drivers, counselors, school resource officers, etc. – to work in concert to curb the problem.
Hirsch also praised the district where Alex attended school for allowing his cameras to document the plight of the students as well as the staff’s difficulty in responding.
“The school was very courageous,” said Hirsch. “It was willing to let its dirty laundry be aired for all to see.”
Van Roekel added that he hopes the film triggers all educators to think about their own actions or inactions in addressing bullying in their schools.
“I was a classroom teacher for 23 years. When I saw this film I couldn’t help but wonder – did I miss a sign that one of my students was being bullied? And how many kids suffered because of this?”
“This movie is very powerful, but the conversation after should be even more powerful.”