Lifting the veil on bullying

The R rating felt ridiculous. It was like R for Ridiculous.

That was what director Lee Hirsch had to say at last night’s Bully screening in DC regarding the ratings controversy that ended last week when an editing agreement was reached to get a PG-13 rating. (Shout out to Katy Butler for her successful Change.org petition that attracted more than 500,000 signers, including 35 Members of Congress and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep.)

Hirsch is right. Rules are rules, but in this case, the R rating would have severely limited Bully's audience. These aren’t the “f” words that fly freely in other films. This is reality. This is what kids in schools are really saying to each other.

Indeed, Bully is a movie that should be shown as widely as possible. To teachers, administrators, and other school personnel. To the parents who are trying to get through to their children. To the kids who are bullied, the ones who do the bullying, and the adults who endure one or both scenarios and carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

As Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, puts it:

The power of this movie is not just the movie but the conversation after.

There’s so much I could say after seeing Bully, and I can’t capture all of it here, but I’ll share a few key points.

Something that Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said struck a chord.

[the] importance of everyone telling their stories. I think we have to actually make these kinds of issues real for people.

I think it’s incumbent upon me to tell my own story. I was no exception to the rule that middle school is bad. Kicking my calculator down the hall. Reaching into my locker for lunch money. You get the picture. But there’s one incident that really stands out. I was on the bus and someone asked me if I was gay. I wasn’t then, and am not now, but felt the need to respond with a defensively sarcastic yes. In essence I bullied something I didn’t understand and became the victim all at the same time. Certain people never let me forget. One of them called me “Ellen” during freshman Spanish class. What can you do but laugh it off?

As Alex Libby and I can tell you, laughing it off doesn’t make the problem go away. There’s a scene in Bully where one of Alex’s assistant principals calls a parade of students into her office as part of an investigation into the violence he regularly suffers on the school bus. One of the kids admits that he’s witnessed bullying but says that Alex laughs it off.

Just because the victims laugh it off doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t a problem. Just because Ja’Meya Jackson takes the drastic step of bring a gun to school doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t a problem. Just because we’ve latched on to the “kids will be kids” myth doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t a problem. Violence is not just “messing around,” and bullying is a problem. Even if you can’t make it stop, bullying is a problem. The list goes on for those whose stories are told in Bully.

So what do we do about it?

Kelby Johnson says:

I just keep thinking that I’m the one in this town who can make a change.

Kelby's struggle doesn’t stop there, but we should learn a lesson from her. Change starts with one person standing up and speaking out.

Kirk and Laura Smalley agree.

Out of the power of the individual grows something extraordinary. I believe it's David Long who says in Bully:

Everything starts with one and builds up. Eventually we have an army.

The anti-bullying coalition here in DC continues to grow. Senator Franken is speaking out. 46 civil rights, education, labor, faith, LGBT, and other groups have written to the Senate. 70 wrote to President Obama. But none of us have said it better than Ty Smalley's friend.

If I was the king of the US, I’d make it where everyone was equal, because that’s the way it should be.

Lee Hirsch continues.

This is the dream, and I know people in this room could make that happen.

And what can you do right now?

Join the Bully movement. Heed PFAW’s call to action. Check out AFT and NEA.

PFAW