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'Bully' Movie Screening Hosted By Teachers Unions Stresses Need To Focus On Classroom

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AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT President Randi Weingarten

WASHINGTON - The heads of the nation's two largest teachers' unions stressed Tuesday night the need for government leaders to continue to focus on bullying prevention in an era of school funding shortages.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, co-hosted a screening of the new documentary, "Bully," and used the event to continue a call for bullying prevention. Among the steps discussed during the event were providing a classroom environment conducive to civility, alerting students to adults whom they could trust to discuss bullying and peer leadership initiatives.

"You can't be against bullying without actually doing something about it," Weingarten told HuffPost during a press availability prior to the screening. "At the end of the day, we need to take concise, tangible steps."

Weingarten said that educators need to avoid cutting funds for guidance counselors and others who work to prevent bullying in order to make up budget cuts, while also continuing to enhance classroom environments. Weingarten said that while state and local education leaders have stressed the need for bullying prevention, they need to do more than talk about the issue.

Weingarten said that the AFT has been pushing the documentary out to its membership and parents by hosting screenings nationwide. She said the group's New York affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, which she used to head, has been making a major push on the film.

Directed by filmmaker Lee Hirsch, "Bully" follows several middle school students from around the country during one school year and documents bullying and the middle school environment. One scene, shot in Sioux City, Iowa, shows middle school student Alex Libby being taunted by classmates on the school bus; another shows an LGBT teen in Oklahoma who faces bullying over her decision to come out. The film also follows the family of Georgia teen Tyler Long in the year following his suicide after he was bullied in middle school.

The film provoked controversy when the MPAA originally gave the movie an R rating, citing the language used in the film. That decision was overturned after a national letter-writing campaign.

Hirsch told HuffPost that while he wants to see more laws enacted at the state level to combat bullying, the main goal of the film is not just to get action by legislators in state capitols. He said he wants to see the film -- which opens in theaters around the country on Friday -- spur a grassroots movement to combat the issue.

"The power of people to make that choice to stand up is more important than any law," he said.

During the panel discussion, Weingarten continued to emphasize the need for school leaders to address the issue, part of which, she suggested, includes a move away from a reliance on test scores to determine school rankings.

"We have to make these kinds of issues real for people: It is okay to be out, it is okay to be different," she said. "One of the reasons that schools push this under the rug is: the thing that matters is test scores, not school climate."

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