The new documentary Bully, which opens in theaters tomorrow, is powerful stuff. Try to get through even just the opening sequence without tearing up. Hopefully it will wake up parents, teachers, and school administrators. But let’s also hope they respond thoughtfully to this searing film. Because too often in our rush to address a problem, American educators and politicians have a well-intentioned overreaction that minimizes commonsense in favor of blanket solutions.
Bully is directed by Lee Hirsch, whose debut feature film, Amandla!, was an award-winning documentary about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His new movie interweaves the stories of five tormented children, two of whom have committed suicide, and their families over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. In Sioux City, Iowa, we meet Alex, a 7th-grader and victim of frequent bullying. Kids are particularly cruel to him on the school bus, shoving and hitting him while the driver just keeps driving. But it’s the haplessness and abject ineffectiveness of his school administration that is the most shocking. In one of the most wrenching scenes in the movie, a middle-school student deftly undoes the argument of a school administrator who claims to be addressing a bullying problem. (Maybe the inmates would be better off running the asylum.) The bullying of Alex is so intense, and the school so weak in addressing it, that the filmmakers drop their observational stance and go to the police. To Sioux City’s credit, the district agreed to let the cameras in in the first place; the administrator, after seeing the film, apologized publicly, and the superintendent has said he welcomes “the conversation about where we have found success and where we can grow even stronger for each and every student.”
Many schools like the ones in Sioux City are genuinely trying to curb child-on-child abuse and, at long last, are paying more attention to the taunting that leads many students – in particular those who are gay, lesbian and transgender – to contemplate suicide. But at the same time, we have to remember that not every unpleasant, or even adverse, interaction between students constitutes bullying. In some places, anti-bullying policies are now so expansive that they make eye-rolling a punishable offense, lumping it in with other forms of verbal and physical assault. Doing so not only takes a serious issue to the realm of the absurd, it also dilutes the importance of anti-bullying efforts in general. If everything is bullying, then nothing is.
Some kids have already figured out how to flip the new system on its head. In some schools’ zeal to address bullying, every allegation is immediately elevated beyond the classroom teacher to a meeting with the principal. A parent in California told me last month that an elementary-school bully began threatening to report her victims as bullies so they would have to suffer through such a meeting — and in effect creating a bullying hall of mirrors.
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We’ve been here before. Weapons and drugs in schools are a serious problem, too. In response, school districts, states, and the federal government began to favor zero-tolerance policies. In short order, “zero-tolerance” policies became punchlines for late-night comics as kids were suspended for bringing to school aspirin, acne medicine, or a G.I. Joe doll with a small plastic gun.
The obvious lesson there and with bullying is that there is no substitute for discretion and judgment by the adults in charge. In some circumstances, eye-rolling could be abusive behavior just as aspirin can be used or abused. But adults shouldn’t abdicate the hard role of making nuanced judgment calls by creating ridiculously rigid discipline codes. Replacing thoughtless inaction with thoughtless action won’t solve the problem. And as Bully shows all too well, for tormented kids there is no problem bigger than this.