More than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year. The number of students between 12 and 18 who have reported this growing form of abuse more than doubled between 2001 and 2007. In 2010, the federal government convened its first bullying summit and announced a grant program for anti-bully efforts by the schools. The most utilized is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program which involves students, teachers, administrators, and support staff. But many educators point out that they do not have sufficient resources to implement anti-bullying programs, curricula, and policies.
In 2010, a group of "bullysides" — teen suicides brought on by intense verbal and physical abuse — made national headlines. These cases revealed the dangers of bullying in school and also "cyberbullying" through social media on the Internet. Those considered as odd, outsiders, or gay are targeted with ridicule, humiliation, and scorn by classmates.
Why has this all come about in our society? Some experts on youth development say that the rise of early-onset puberty lies behind the cruelty and need to dominate others. Others point to the lack of civility in the culture in general which rears its ugly head in the narcissism, violence, and bigotry of teens today. And the media plays a toxic role. Television reality shows and feature films promote the thrill of beating others in competition, the humiliation of losers, and the satisfaction of cliques that attack outsiders.
All of this provides a back-drop to Bully, a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch which focuses on the experiences of three kids subjected to bullying by their peers over the course of a year. It also introduces us to the parents of two other bullying victims who committed suicide. For many movie-goers this may serve as an informative and very disturbing wake-up call to a growing social problem. Crisscrossing back-and-forth between the boys and girls profiled, the director has chosen the harrowing experiences of Alex, a 12-year-old boy in Sioux City, Iowa, who is called "fish-face" by his cruel classmates, as the hub of this exploration of bullying. He has no friends and wanders the playground during recess as a loner in the midst of a crowd. Alex dreads the ride on the school bus where he is punched, strangled, and tormented by death threats. At one point, Alex admits that he's been pushed so far that sometimes he wants to be the bully. His mother doesn't know about the fear that has paralyzed him, and his insensitive father wants him to fight back.
The futility and danger of fighting back is illustrated in the story of Ja'meya, a 14-year-old African-American girl who is sent to a reformatory while facing 45 felony counts for drawing a gun on the school bus against the kids that have been tormenting her for years. A white sheriff believes that nothing that could have happened to Ja'meya can justify her wielding a gun. For both her and Alex riding to school with bullies is the equivalent to a daily trip to hell.
Kelby, a 16 year old in a small Oklahoma town, has her own hell to endure after she declares herself to be a lesbian. Once a star athlete, she is kicked off the team and treated like an alien from another planet; in a classroom, everybody around her moves when she sits down. Kelby yearns to speak out against the bullying but seeks refuge instead in a small circle of friends. Her father tells her they will move if she wants to, but she believes that will mean the bullys have won.
In the same state, Ty Smalley's suicide has deeply affected his best friend who remembers him as a courageous teenager who endured repeated attacks by bullies; he wishes that there would be "no popularity and everybody would be equal." Ty's parents, Kirk and Laura, describe themselves as "little people" that nobody will pay attention to, yet his father organizes an anti-bullying campaign via the Internet and is seen speaking to groups of kids.
Bully opens with David Long talking about the suicide of his son Tyler, his first-born. A quiet child who was not athletic, he was bullied relentlessly in school and committed suicide at age 17. "He had a target on his back, and everyone knew that," says his dad. He and his wife Tina call a town meeting to give students and parents a chance to talk about this community problem. A pastor asks why the bullies are not held responsible for Tyler's death. The police chief shows up but nobody from the school district comes.
The school officials don't handle the problem well in the other stories in this documentary either. At Alex's school, the assistant principal forces a bully to shake hands with another victim and then keeps the victim behind so she can criticize him. When Alex's parents beg her for help, she brings out a picture of her grandchild to prove that she cares, while telling them not to worry; after all, she's ridden on that bus and the youth were well-behaved. When Alex complains that the school did nothing when he reported a bully sitting on his head on the bus, the school administrator asks him how he knows she didn't do anything. It becomes increasingly clear that the anti-bullying movement will be led by parents and affected youth. This film invites us all to join them.
Special features on the DVD include: a featurette "The Bully Project at Work"; "Communities in Motion"; and deleted scenes.