Posted on April 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm

This is a message for Alex.  You are a great kid.  You will be a great, happy, successful adult.  And those high school boys who torture you so brutally on the school bus every day will spend their adult lives either clueless about why they will never feel as big and tough as they did in high school or horrified by the way they treated you.

This is a message for the school system.  Do not put high schoolers and middle schoolers on the same bus.  Do not tell two boys who are fighting to shake hands and apologize and send them on their way.  Do not show parents who are agonized by seeing footage of their son being tortured on the school bus a picture of your new grandchild.  And for the love of Pete, start teaching your students that neither inflicting nor tolerating abuse will be permitted in your school.  If students cannot feel safe, they cannot learn.

This searing documentary tells five stories.  Two of its subjects have already committed suicide, one only 11 years old.  Another, overcome by the pain of continual abuse and feeling she had no other option, brought a gun on the school bus and found herself trapped by a judicial system that has zero tolerance for firearms but is helpless to combat sustained physical and emotional torture.  Then there is Kelby, a confident young lesbian who has a few close friends but is otherwise an outcast.  And Alex, who is what pediatricians call an FLK (funny-looking kid).  He has a great heart (watch him with his mother and his little sister).  But he was born prematurely and has a bit more than the usual middle school awkwardness.  It is wrenching to see him come home every day and answer his mother’s anxious question about how things went with a noncommittal, “fine.”

I once heard a principal say that a lot of upset parents came through his office, parents who were concerned about their children’s academic or behavior problems.  But, he said, the ones who put their heads down on his desk and sobbed were the ones who felt hopeless about their children’s sense of isolation and lack of friends.  One of the most touching moments of the film is when Kelby’s father, a  conservative Christian who had been anti-gay until his daughter came out says soberly that if you want to find out how little you understood about your life, have a gay child.  His own friends had stopped talking to them.  All of the parents in this movie are devoted, loving, supportive, and devastated.

Anyone who has survived adolescence knows what it feels like to be excluded or different.  But as adults, until our children remind us, we sometimes forget how devastating those feelings are when you are too young to know that for the rest of your life it will not be as hard to find safe places and good friends.

The movie also made me think about the way we seem to perpetuate a bully culture.  Whether it is the real housewives or politicians and commentators, we have enabled a culture of disrespect and partisanship that sets a bad example.  I hope all middle schoolers and high schoolers will see this movie and begin some conversations about what all of us can do to bring us closer to a culture of civility and respect, or just to bring us closer.



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Documentary School Teenagers

Interview: Lee Hirsch, Director of “Bully”

Posted on April 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

Lee Hirsch is the director of “Bully,” the new documentary about the painful and pervasive problem of bullying in schools.  The movie is being released without a rating from the MPAA, after an appeal and a petition signed by more than half a million people failed to overturn the R-rating.  As producer Harvey Weinstein points out, this month we have a fantasy movie about teenagers killing other teenagers that gets a PG-13 but a documentary that includes the language used by actual teenagers in abusing each other is considered too adult for them to see.  I highly recommend Andrew O’Hehir’s excellent column about the MPAA’s hypocrisy in rating this film.  As he points out,

while the MPAA board pretends to be a source of neutral and non-ideological advice to parents, it all too often reveals itself to be a velvet-glove censorship agency, seemingly devoted to reactionary and defensive cultural standards. In the “Bully” case, the board has ended up doing what it usually does: favoring the strong against the weak, further marginalizing the marginalized, and enforcing a version of “family values” that has all sorts of unspoken stereotypes about gender and sexuality and race and other things baked into it. In short, the MPAA has sided with the bullies and creeps.

Hirsch spoke to me about the ratings controversy and the response to the film, including the reaction from a school administrator who is portrayed as unhelpful and out of touch on screen.

I’m sorry the MPAA gave it the rating that it did but it certainly has helped get the word out, don’t you think?

Yeah, it has. Kind of been amazing, actually, just seeing the sort of grassroots action has really moved me and kind of inspired me. It’s been amazing, it really has, and it’s great to have a celebrity, it’s great to have the politicians, but it’s the kids, seeing the kids step up. That’s truly awesome.

Tell me about Alex, one of the kids picked on in the film. I want to friend him on Facebook or something. I just love that kid. 

His parents have quite rightly kept him off Facebook. He is really such an extraordinary kid, he is really awesome you know, I want to describe it as he has “the shine” about him, and it really started at the premiere of the film at Tribeca.  That was the first time he got that huge affirmation of applause and support, and you know, it’s almost like he’s a different kid. He’s a little older, but, he is so confident, able to do press, and not just able, but he rocks it. He sat next to Harvey Weinstein, argued the rating before the MPAA, he just makes friends everywhere he goes, he hugs people wherever he goes, he is just amazing. Seeing his sort of growth is perhaps the thing or one of the things I’m most proud of in this whole process.

I loved all the parents in the film and I thought you busted a lot of stereotypes in a very nice way with the families.

Oh, thank you so much, yeah I love those parents, their families are extraordinary, they’re really all very special people..

For me one of the most moving moments of the film was the scene with him with his little, little sister when she was like two or something like that—he was so kind to her and it really shows you what a great guy he is.

When he helps her with the water? Yes that is amazing.

The scene that is the most disturbing is the one where his parents go to talk to the school administrator, and she’s just useless. I mean, it’s just horrifying. Has she spoken about the movie at all, has she learned her lesson?

I’m in no position to speak for her.  I can tell you that we a had a screening a couple of months ago, that was a free community screening, we thought maybe three or four hundred people would come and sixteen hundred people packed the house. She came; she was very brave, she had seen the film a number of times and it’s obviously very difficult for her.  She had some great courage to stand in front of the entire community and apologize. She said she had wished she had done more, and she needs to do better, and generally speaking, educators don’t necessarily have all the tools that they need.  So I think she really transformed that moment into a real teachable moment.  A lot of administrators who had seen this film had said, you know, if we’re really honest, we’ve all made these mistakes.

She said, “If my being in this film in this way contributes to change, then I’m ok with it.” It’s been a little bit worth it, because it’s obviously had deep impact on her life, but bullying has a deep impact on the lives of the kids who’re suffering.  So, it’s been a journey, but I think that what that school district gave us was really the most extraordinary gift they could give America, really. I can guarantee 99% of school districts would say, “No way can you film about bullying in our school and have editorial control, and have access inside that principal’s office, and on the busses. ”  These people embraced what it would mean to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may and just learn from it. So it really creates an opportunity for working with the Harvard graduate school of education, with many organizations to figure out, how can we make this into professional development, not only new teacher administrative training, but making use of books that have been in the field for 20-30 years. What impact will seeing this film have on them, and how do we support that and engage around that?  But not just administrators, I mean, one of our partners is First Student which is the largest school bus company in America, they bus over 30 million kids each day in our country.  And we’re in deep talks with them about how to bring bus drivers into this conversation in a meaningful way.

We see all of this as opportunities to create change and build community. We’re not against anybody, we see everyone as our partner and having a really great, natural conversation.

I read that Lady Ga-Ga’s anti-bullying initiative focuses on everyone, victims, bullies, and bystanders.  

Absolutely, I mean, they’re kids, too, you know?  Having empathy, empathy as a whole, if you’re wanting to increase empathy, you would want to, I would imagine, have a sort of global empathic response.   Bullies do it for the peer accolades they get for doing it. I think that’s the core relationship for them— it is with their peers and not with the person they’re picking on. So if you make it not cool to be a bully, then, that part of it would work.  That’s why there’s so much power in speaking to that middle, that 80% roughly, of kids that have the capacity to stand up to be upstanders and not bystanders.  To that end we’re working with so many great artists and working with DoSomething.org,  America’s promise, and Ashoka on how we can really ramp up youth engagement through this film and give them ways to engage on multiple levels and commit to being change-makers in their communities.  That’s a big piece of what our team does, separate from the film itself.

Do you find that people who see the film, adults who see the film want to talk to you not just about what’s going on today with children but what went on with them when they were children?  That adults are still traumatized by their own experiences?

More than you can imagine.

I mean, honestly, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have someone you would never expect.  And it comes from everywhere.  For the first time, Meryl Streep admitted to being bullied.

What do you want parents to learn from seeing this movie?

Well, I hope parents feel like the movie gives them cover to talk about this with their kids and I hope it helps them have those conversations as a family, with both their parents collectively, and then with their kids, to help them talk about what it means to be an upstander, to be a change-maker, you know, being more patient, I think, if the kid is being bullied, and understanding the importance about being smart about the fight and a lot of what we’re doing with our tools and with our resources is help equip parents to deal with that effectively, because certainly, as you see in the film, that’s where the system breaks down a lot—in that communications process.


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Directors Interview
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