As a general rule, people don’t like going to depressing movies. That includes me, so I avoided going to see “Bully.” But when a couple of friends—both retired principals—and I got together, the topic came up and we decided to see it together.
Being “veteran” principals (two of us spent 15 years in one school, one spent 16 years at two schools), we remembered back when we began our administrative careers that the term “bullying” was not as pervasive as it is now. There’s definitely more awareness of what bullying is today, but 15-20 years ago, many viewed it as physical aggressiveness towards others—period. A common belief was that victims of bullies were often thought to have “asked” for whatever treatment they received from others.
When Columbine occurred in 1999, discussion about how students who are "outcasts" or "different" began in earnest. In our schools we began to educate ourselves and all staff members about bullying, stressing that emotional bullying is just as damaging as physical bullying. Bullying is repeated harassment that can encompass more than physical aggression: it can also include emotional abuse and intimidation. A child who has been bullied would probably agree with the Thesaurus’ synonym for harassment: persecution.
Our job as adults is to teach children how to treat others, especially those who are perceived as being somehow “different;” how to stick up for others; and, if a victim, how to respond to bullying. We must also work with those who do the bullying to help them change their behavior. After all, victims as well as bullies are kids. We’re the adults. It’s up to us to help them understand and adjust their behavior.
Bullying generally flies under adults’ radar. Kids are smart enough to bully others only when other kids are around. Kids are also smart enough to identify a student whom they perceive as weaker, someone who won’t retaliate or tell on them. When an adult’s intercession is requested by a victim—which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen that often—there’s often no proof that bullying occurred, just one child’s voice against the other's. Teachers, pressed for time and the responsibility of attending to a class full of students, often can’t devote enough time to mediating the situation. Yet it’s important for adults (any adult available) to ensure that all situations that come to their attention are addressed. It’s important to talk to witnesses to the incident. It’s important for adults to be firm in establishing acceptable behavior, and it’s important that consequences are enforced, rather than ignoring or dismissing the behavior.
There are reasons some kids act like bullies. It’s not always to make themselves feel better. Sometimes it’s to impress others; sometimes it’s because it’s the only way a child knows how to relate or communicate with others; sometimes it is because they feel bad themselves and want to make someone else feel worse; sometimes it’s because they can’t (or won’t) accept or understand anyone who is different from them; sometimes they are the ones who are bullied at home.
The movie “Bully” calls attention to the worst behaviors, not only of children but of the adults in charge. In this movie, school administrators and law enforcement officers dismiss bullying reports, ignore grave situations, and disregard parents’ concerns. Children torment other children even under the watchful “eye” of an adult with a camera. Undoubtedly, you will have the same questions we had: Why is the bus driver not doing anything about this behavior? Does that administrator really think she’s handling this situation well? How can that sheriff say that?
The good news is that not every school or community or administrator is like those depicted in the movie. The bad news is that in many communities and schools, someone is probably being bullied mercilessly. And the sad news is that the school staff and parents may not even be aware of the bullying.
“Bully” shows the devastating effects on children who are victims and on their families. The message is meant to shock you by showing you how bullying can have dire and lasting effects on others. Children driven to suicide at such young ages (the youngest was 11) because they can’t take the harassment any more is just not right.
There’s no question bullying behavior has been occurring for generations upon generations, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to change that. Educating parents, teachers, school staff, and children is crucial. I know in our community there has been a focus on this through district as well as individual school efforts. I know some teachers spend time each day focusing on group lessons to help children learn how to value each other despite differences in appearance or behavior. Social workers, too, have been incredibly helpful in working with students to understand how to accept and respect each other. But without everyone—educators, parents, children—routinely working in partnership, it is very difficult to make changes to behavior.
See the movie. Then decide how you, as an adult, can help to make a difference in children’s lives, whether they are your own kids, your nieces or nephews, your neighbors, your grandchildren, or children in the local schools. Changing attitudes and behaviors is not easy, but like so many important things, it starts with each of us doing what we can to make a difference.
Start by beginning the discussion. Lead by example.
If your child is old enough, view the movie with him or her.
We can’t afford to have even one more child tormented to the point where he or she wants to commit suicide.