Bully tells the stories of five children. Two, named Tyler and Ty, have committed suicide, and are seen only in their families' photos and videos; their parents, though, are determined to keep speaking for them. Ja'Meya, 14, is facing charges for having responded to bullying by pulling a gun on her bullies (no one was injured). Kelby, 16, is seen with her friends, and speaking about her experience of being bullied and ostracized after she came out as a lesbian in small-town Oklahoma, but we don't follow her into the experience as it happens. We do follow Alex, 12, through isolation and torment at school and on the school bus, and watch his parents grapple with the severity of his bullying.
In a sense, the movie is less concerned with the cruelty of children than with the failure of adults to prevent it. Both Tyler and Ty's parents had repeatedly tried to get school administrators to intervene, without success. An assistant principal at Alex's school not only fails to take seriously the abuse Alex is being subjected to on the school bus, she is also shown berating another bullied child for refusing to shake hands with his bully; because the bully is willing to shake hands (and why wouldn't he be), he gets off more lightly. Kelby's teachers are among her bullies.
In a vivid demonstration of how accepted bullying is in some schools, these kids' parents are fighting for them, pushing school administrators to take action, and things still aren't changing. Even in the wake of Tyler's suicide his school resists his parents' call for change. We see how powerless to protect their kids these parents are made to feel; in fact, I almost wish Alex's mom, Jackie Libby, could somehow appear every time this movie is shown. She took part in the panel discussion following the NEA/AFT screening, and the contrast between the frightened, shaken woman in the movie, her inability to protect her son making her raw and vulnerable, and the poised, forceful, witty woman who spoke before hundreds of people last week is a clear demonstration of the potency of bullying even in the lives of adults, and of the system's failure to stop it.
Bully is also concerned with how bullied kids are penalized for fighting back. Most powerfully, Ja'Meya faces more than 40 felony charges; obviously no one sane would argue that pulling a gun is the way to handle teen bullies, or that her action should go unpunished, but it's striking how the routine harassment and abuse bullied kids face is tolerated in contrast. Ty, the 11 year old boy who killed himself did so, his father says, after he was suspended from school for fighting—fighting back. Alex never fights back himself, but when his parents complained, backed up by the filmmakers' footage of Alex being assaulted, it was Alex, not the bullies, who is made to ride another bus.
It's important to note that what we're talking about here is not the kind of transient being picked on that probably all kids face at some time or another, the wheel of experience in which sometimes you're popular and sometimes you're not, sometimes you have social power and sometimes you don't. This is persistent, isolating, crushing abuse. It is very often about gender or sexuality or the intersection between the two—at the NEA/AFT screening, Russlynn Ali, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, spoke about how her department sees cases in which kids are bullied for ostensibly being gay as being under federal jurisdiction because, especially in cases where the kids are too young to even know if they're gay or not, the harassment they face is fundamentally about gender, about not fitting conventional masculinity or femininity.
(Continue reading below the fold)
Bullying is in this sense not just individual abuse but part of a system of social control. Kelby's bullying stands as a cautionary tale to any other kid who might be thinking about coming out as gay in her small town, marking her as literally untouchable, with other students refusing to sit in the seats surrounding her in class. These cases of gender or sexuality-based bullying are children and teens replicating biases that are pervasive in our culture. Chase these biases out of our culture, and a lot of the worst bullying goes away.
But it's not just the culture of discrimination against gay kids or kids who aren't traditionally masculine or feminine that needs to be changed, as a panel discussion after the screening I attended emphasized repeatedly. The culture that "kids will be kids" or, especially, "boys will be boys" has to be dismantled. The fact that these are kids doesn't mean the adults responsible for their education and well-being can just shrug their shoulders and figure it will all work out in the end. They have to take responsibility for changing the culture within schools to respond with the seriousness bullying merits.
Again, I think it's important to separate out bullying as a category, something characterized by being ongoing and isolating. That is, if by "kids will be kids" we mean they fight with their friends and say mean things and then make up, they get into spats on the playground ... it's true that perfect peace will never prevail and that while adults should step in as appropriate, it can be treated as discrete incidents. When best friends fight over whether one of them was safely on base or out during a recess kickball game, Alex's assistant principal's "shake hands and make up" strategy isn't out of place. But bullying is a pattern in which one child is the consistent target. Teachers and school administrators and other adults who work with kids have to understand it as such, learn to recognize it, and respond not as if each insult or assault was a separate incident but with the understanding that those incidents combine into an ongoing assault on a child's sense of safety and self.
As NEA President Dennis Van Roekel noted during the discussion, as a teacher you remember the incidents you broke up, the bullying you stopped—but having watched the movie he found himself wondering what he had missed. That's a question one hopes current teachers and administrators and school bus drivers and cafeteria workers ask themselves, and take into their work days. A key problem, though, is how we crack down on bullying not just in the places where it's already not acceptable to pick on a kid for being gay, but in the places like Kelby's Oklahoma town where teachers participate in homophobic abuse. Lee Hirsch, the director of Bully, is pushing to bring the film outside of the urban centers and college towns to which documentaries are typically restricted. Getting the movie seen more widely, and by the people whose lives it most touches, is why getting the initial R rating removed was so important.
Although it must be said, given the note I started on—that you will cry watching this—I sort of shudder to think of kids watching this in school, with their peers. In that setting, tears might be a dangerous thing to produce.
(For more on Bully and especially on the panel discussion with AFT President Randi Weingarten, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Jackie Libby, and director Lee Hirsch, see teacherken's account.)