‘Bully’ Delivers a Strong Punch

I attended the New York theatrical debut of Bully Friday evening with my daughter, Tina. After a train ride to the city and a long walk from Penn Station (in the wrong direction first) to the Angelika Film Center, I was pleased to see some young people with the Bully logo on T-shirts handing out fliers about the movie and talking with people who were buying tickets. This was a testament to the purpose of the film — to start a movement.

Inside the theater a sign read, “7:00 pm show sold out.” Later, I found out that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) bought out the seats. Another testament to the purpose of the film — to spread the word among teachers and administrators.

Although the 8:00 pm show wasn’t a sellout, at least 85 percent of the seats were filled. Not bad for the first night and the facts that the film was showing at least eight times that night and also at another mainstream theater in the city.

I’ve seen the film three times before Friday night but the impact is still the same. You never get used to scenes of a father grieving over the death of his child because of bullying, or of a girl crying in jail because she became so angry and frustrated at kids who harassed her that she brought her mother’s gun onto a school bus to scare them. The feelings are still potent — dismay and disbelief that a school administrator could be so callous and clueless about how her students are hurt by bullying; empathy for Alex and other students who are relentlessly bullied but don’t know how to talk with their parents about it; frustration because of the fact that it’s not that hard, if the school really works at it, to develop a climate of caring, acceptance, and empathy.  

Principal missed the mark

After the closing credits, I turned to Tina and asked her what was the strongest feeling she had during the film. She said, “Is that the best the principal could have done? She didn’t do a good job with the kids. That made me angry.” Tina was reacting to a scene where the principal brings two kids together in the hallway as they are coming in from recess. One of the students was clearly bullied by the other, yet the principal forces the bullied student to shake hands with the bully with no reprimand for the bully. When the bullied student is reluctant to shake his tormentor’s hand, the principal says to him, “You are just like him.”

The audience practically threw popcorn boxes at the screen in protest. This principal’s words made the bullied student feel even worse. The principal should have separated the two and had a “teaching moment” with the bully and a “comforting moment” with the victim. Strong antibullying policies and a culture of helping, not hurting, should be the motivation for teaching the bully about school policy and helping the bully to plan how he is going to correct what he did — and also take the opportunity to teach some empathy. This is the job of a caring adult — especially the principal, who is responsible for the school climate.

Schools are often blind to the pain bullying causes. This mystifies parents, who assume that schools care for the emotional well-being of students because that is the image schools work to protect. That’s why it takes many months — often longer than necessary — for parents to realize what’s happening.

To put it bluntly, administrators (and this is depicted plainly in Bully) are often oblivious to bullying because there aren’t any physical scars; as a result, they dismiss it as harmless tussles between kids. Sometimes, schools try to do the right thing, implementing various responses to bullying — but most miss the mark.

What teachers and parents can do

I was heartened to see that the AFT bought out the theater for the 7:00 pm show. I don’t know what will happen in their respective schools as a result of their experience, what will be discussed in teacher’s rooms or whether there will be follow-up programs for the teachers. But at least so many saw the movie, I have to assume that most felt enough to do something to help bullied kids in their school. This movie can be a start in the right direction.

What educators can do:

  • Move beyond posters in hallways and assembly chants.
  • Use the movie as a discussion point to create a just and caring community.
  • All adults in the school must work to assure that values of respect and responsibility live and breathe in every aspect of the school.

For many parents, this movie might be an eye opener, causing them to think about the times their child came home from school unhappy, said she didn’t want to go to baseball practice ever again, or experienced a drop in grades. These can be signs that your child is being bullied in school. There is so much that parents can do to create a positive climate of open communication with their child to get information about bullying, and then to communicate effectively with the school to hold it accountable for ending the hurt. This movie can be a start in the right direction.

What parents can do:

  • At the end of the movie, or when you have some quiet time with your child, have a discussion. Depending on a child’s personal experience with bullying and mistreatment, they may have different reactions to the movie.
  • Start your discussion by simply asking how it made them feel. They may say it made them feel sad, mad or frustrated, or a mix of those feelings.
  • Acknowledge that these are valid feelings. Also let them know that we have choices when we feel mad or sad about something — we can choose to take those feelings and use them in a positive way to change things.

This film for sure intensified the antibullying movement among educators, parents, kids and apparently the MPAA since they granted the PG-13 Rating without cutting out the crucial scene.

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‘Bully’ Delivers a Strong Punch