Documentary illuminates dangers of bullying in schools

The Bully Project/Courtesy

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The assistant principal simply doesn’t know what to do about bullying. She asks the cameraman for a solution but does rhetorically, demonstrating that she knows that an honest answer would cause more work for her than she wants.

So she keeps reinforcing the abuse by side-stepping or, as one mother calls it, “politicianing” the issue. At one point she lets a bully go to class while keeping back the frustrated victim to encourage the child to try and be friendly. She is so out of touch with her students that her responses are almost comical in their idiocy.

If this is how it is when she is conscious of the camera, imagine how she acts without it.

Everyone is familiar with the image of bullying, witnessed firsthand or through the media, but in “Bully,” it is clear that peer oppression is more harmful than a couple of punches. More disturbing is that the adults are just as guilty of the psychological impact. The most jarring reoccurring image is that of educators bullying children and their parents to internalize that nothing is wrong, and “kids will be kids.”

The documentary features Ty Smalley, Alex Libby, Kelby Johnson, Ja’meya Jackson and Tyler Long, aged 11 to 17, in public schools in Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia. Ty and Tyler committed suicide before the making of the movie, and their stories are told through their parents and friends. They all continue to struggle with bullying, and the ugliness of it all is depicted as a catalyst for violence, helplessness and self-harm.

The film is not outstanding in its form, but it does not need to be, since the issue of bullying is what’s important. The film opens with Tyler Long’s father speaking about his son’s suicide, and moves from child to child, examining their lives at school, home, and with their friends. With few stylistic distractions, the stories seem more honest.

If only the solution were that simple. Fighting back was what Ja’meya did, but after waving a gun around on a school bus to scare her bullies, she was arrested and battled over 40 felony charges and hundreds of years in jail.

She is not the only victim who faces punishment. The most difficult part of watching is the hopelessness, especially with Alex, stuck between having no friends or having “friends” that stab him with pencils and sit on him. The scolding from his parents for not defending himself also pushes him further into confusion, to the point that he is left with a sense of blame.

It is obvious that Alex is not to blame for his own torment, but is part of a depressing cycle of diffused responsibility. It starts with the bullies thinking it is okay to abuse others and fooling the victims into thinking it is normal, the parents not communicating with their children and then the educators not responding, obliterating progress.

But after exposing this problem, the documentary is only barely solution-oriented. Although the filmmaker approaches Alex’s parents when violence escalates on the bus, there is no change. Only one scene has Ty’s father encouraging kids to change how they treat each other, and those kids seem to be the ones that already understand the impact of bullying.

The most promising result of the film is that the Weinstein Company pushed for it to be rated PG-13 instead of R, to be shown in schools. This battle illustrates that these young children fight bullying almost alone, and perhaps the adults who are supposed to be the ones protecting children need to see the movie most.