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Carrie Jacobs, Ph.D. Headshot

Bully Is a Wake-Up Call... For Adults

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Recently, a film seeking to highlight the issue of bullying in schools opened in Philadelphia. In the documentary, filmmakers follow several students who are bullied, and film parents, teachers, and administrators as they struggle -- or fail -- to deal with this all-too-pervasive problem.

The movie Bully is a call to action -- but whom is it calling? Are we really asking young people to speak up/out against bullies and offering them no protection? This almost-documentary needs to be calling out to the adults who, in the film, are no more than oblivious, uninformed, and ineffectual in addressing the outright human cruelty. To me, Bully is a sad and painful illustration of the non-responsiveness, ineffectiveness, and uncertainty of adults in providing safe and supportive environments for young people.

The buzz around town is that Bully should be "required viewing for young people between the ages of 8 to 18" (USA Today) and that the primary audience is youth in middle school (The New York Times). The battle Harvey Weinstein had with the MPAA around the R rating, and his hope of showing the film in schools, has led to the belief that youth are the target audience for this film.

With all the talk about Bully being mandatory for youth to see, no one really explains why. The Wall Street Journal states "'Bully' is a teaching tool, and the language in question turns on words routinely heard or used by the very kids who should be seeing it, both for enlightenment and solace." Really? The film offers our youth nothing but a painful look at what they already see and feel almost daily as victims, perpetrators, bystanders -- or any combination of these -- of bullying. The movie poignantly highlights to young people how invisible their lives can be to adults, and just how unsupportive and inattentive adults can be.

The emotional impact of Bully will likely be keenly felt by the bullied, somewhat understood by the non-bullied, and all but lost on the bully. I certainly don't agree with censoring the movie, but as an adult, I need to be aware that it may be traumatizing to a young person who has been bullied, or even to youths who have suffered great loss in their lives. A young man in Philadelphia I have worked with was so severely bullied in his high school for being gay that he left to be home-schooled. After he saw the film, he was so traumatized he sought psychiatric hospitalization the next day.

One might think that after Columbine and the dozen or so school shootings since, our youth-serving institutions run by adults might begin to seriously consider addressing bullying in a real way. But that's not where we as a culture direct our resources. We pay a lot of lip service to valuing young people, but our youth-serving institutions are uniformly under-resourced.

The movie illustrates a kind of malignant indifference that school administration and staff adopt toward bullying. Not only are the students unsupported by school personnel, but, additionally, concerned parents are unable to get real or reasonable responses to their inquiries about their child's situation. The responses given are focused on either denial that a problem exists, acceptance of harassment or violence as "normal," or banal statements used to sidestep the issue or to express that there is nothing they can do. These "powerful" adults come across as completely powerless. Overall, it appears that school personnel simply have no clue what to do or how to handle the situation.

On this point, in the April 8 Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania state senator Anthony H. Williams stated, "The teachers that are coming out of teaching colleges are not trained in these areas. We are turning out teachers and administrators who are taking on responsibilities much greater than we would imagine them to be, and they need to be equipped to do so."

As unexplored as urban environments were in this film, the response of the schools and the individuals in it felt all too familiar to me. I was in a meeting with a Philadelphia school principal who told me unequivocally that there is "no bullying in my school" and that he runs a tight ship. I was there at the prompting of both a troubled gay youth and a teacher in the school. A recent Philadelphia high school grad told me, "Adults keep bullying alive by turning a blind eye or giving their own reasons about why a youth is being bullied." He told me that his Philadelphia school did nothing when he was being bullied.

One of the many particularly disturbing scenes in the film shows actual occurrences where one of the featured young boys is on his school bus and being verbally and physically abused. It is difficult to imagine that this is happening in front of an adult holding a camera. In an interview on NPR, Lee Hirsh, the filmmaker, stated that he was surprised that the youth were not in any way deterred by the camera or his presence. This is not surprising to me at all. Clearly it depicts what youth have learned from adults: "You don't help us if we're being bullied," and, "You don't stop us if we are doing the bullying."

It seems to me that the public view that Bully is a movie for youth is a reflection of adults' lack of understanding of young people. This movie needs to seen by every adult working in every school and every child welfare agency in the country. This is a call to action for adults to begin a dialogue with each other about their own failure to stand up against bullying and their charge to protect youth.