At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”
Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”
The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.
Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.
Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.
All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.
“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”
Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”
As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.
“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”
Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”
It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.
“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.
Certainly, the consequences of unpunished bullying are profound: Two boys profiled in the film, Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Field Smalley, 11, both took their own lives after suffering incessant violent intimidation. Their families laid blame on city and school bureaucracies that were too slow to act; one of the film’s major revelations is how strangely subdued school authorities can be in responding to parent and student complaints. Even after Long’s death, a school superintendent downplays the problem: It happens, she allows. But, “Is it a major overarching concern? No it is not,” she says unapologetically.
Just how severe must bullying become to rouse adults from their permissive slumber? How is it that in some schools, the film asks, teachers and parents are unwilling or unable to intervene until a situation has escalated beyond control?
In Yazoo County, Miss., 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson is berated with such frequency and intensity, she turns the tables on her aggressors and brings her mother’s gun onto a school bus. After treacherous moments when Jackson walks up and down the aisle, carelessly waving the firearm, she is arrested, incarcerated and charged with multiple felonies. The bullied becomes the bully. The evocations of deep trauma surface in the scenes that follow, during her mother’s visits to the juvenile detention center. It is the pain in her face that is searing and vivid; her eyes full of regret, guilt and desperation.
When I spoke with Hirsch on a recent Friday afternoon, he had just returned home from Washington, D.C., where the film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, had partnered with former U.S. Senator and current MPAA chairman Chris Dodd in hosting a screening of the film. Over the past month, a very public battle has raged between the Weinstein Co. and the MPAA over the film’s rating, with Weinstein insisting that an “R” will preclude it from being shown in schools without special permissions, and the MPAA holding steady that parents should have the final say in whether their kids see it. “As a father of four,” Weinstein said, trumpeting his own parent-card in an official statement, “I worry every day about bullying. It’s a serious and ever-present concern for me and my family.” He called on every child, parent and educator in America to see “Bully” and, to further needle the MPAA, added, “It’s better that children see bad language than bad behavior.”
When an appeal for a PG-13 rating fell one vote shy of the needed two-thirds majority, Weinstein responded with his characteristic bravado by threatening to withdraw all future Weinstein Co. films from the ratings system (a more or less empty threat, as a majority of American movie theaters will not show unrated films). Still, Weinstein waged on: “This time it has just been a bridge too far,” he wrote in a statement to the MPAA. “I have been through many of these appeals, but this one-vote loss is a huge blow to me personally.”
It is even more personal for Hirsch, who was bullied as a child and made the film as a corrective to his private anguish. “A lot of it I have sort of put blocks on,” he said about the violence he suffered in grade school. “I tend to remember the daily punches and insults, but the bigger, more violent things I have a block on.” Once the film started being shown, however, some of what Hirsch suppressed began to surface. He said a friend recently reminded him of one incident when “a bunch of kids pulled me into a bathroom and turned on hot water, and they were making Auschwitz jokes and saying, ‘We’re taking you to the gas chamber,’ and they beat me up in the bathroom.”
According to Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at the University of Southern California, and an expert in the field of school violence, bearing witness can be a game changer in curbing bad behavior. “Elie Wiesel had a huge influence in how I see school violence,” Astor said. “Because his focus is on the witness and on the bystander. He actually held witnesses more culpable; he always felt that the witnesses could have done something to stop [the Holocaust], but instead, they stood by — there wasn’t a clear directive to what a witness or what a community or a bystander ought to do; what is the moral obligation?
“I think, in some ways, the solution for the common school fight would be for the circle of kids around [where they are usually] watching, cheering on, jeering — if that could be switched around, where the peer group feels culpable and responsible, that energy is then turned around to stop a fight,” Astor added.
Eradicating all human cruelty is an impossible goal, but Hirsch agrees that the bystander effect is where the most change is possible. In the curriculum guide for the film, co-developed by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit devoted to combatting bigotry, the term “upstand” is taught to describe a bystander who defends a victim. After a recent screening in St. Louis for 500 middle-school students, Max Shiblom wrote on The Bully Project’s Facebook page that he had intervened during a bullying incident on the bus. “If it wasn’t for what I saw today,” he wrote, “I probably would have never stepped in and stopped it.”
Still, the MPAA hasn’t budged, though the screening in Washington last week was reportedly friendly. “There’s no animosity,” The Washington Post reported Weinstein as saying to a packed house that included D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “We disagree on a rating,” Weinstein said of Sen. Dodd, “but we don’t disagree about life and many other things.”
But the challenge to the MPAA has gone beyond the filmmakers. After seeing the film, 17-year-old Katy Butler, a high school junior from Michigan who has experienced severe bullying, began a petition on Change.org to persuade the MPAA to change the film’s rating. As of earlier this week, Butler had collected nearly 438,000 signatures and enlisted celebrity support from Ellen DeGeneres, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Justin Bieber, as well as 29 members of Congress.
Hirsch said Butler acted of her own volition. “That had nothing to do with the Weinstein Co.,” he said, acknowledging that Weinstein is a master at drumming up free publicity. “No one could have dreamed that up. It just happened.”
In response, the MPAA seems to be looking for ways to endorse the film without overhauling its entire ratings system. “It was kinda awesome when the chancellor of D.C. schools said, ‘My schools will see this film’ ” — and the MPAA later Tweeted it, Hirsch said. He understands the dilemma: “They’re locked into a process, [and] they’re probably afraid to open up Pandora’s Box by changing it.”
In a statement e-mailed to The Journal, the MPAA’s Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification & Rating Administration, acknowledged the importance of the film’s topic and that it could serve as a vehicle for important discussions. “Unfortunately, there is a misconception about the R rating of this film limiting the audience to adults. ... In fact, many other R-rated movies on important topics, such as ‘Schindler’s List,’ have been screened in schools and viewed by children accompanied by their parents.
“As with any movie, parents will decide if they want their children to see ‘Bully.’ School districts, similarly, handle the determination of showing movies on a case-by-case basis and have their own guidelines for parental approval. The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie.”
The heads of school for three Los Angeles-area private Jewish day schools — Jason Ablin from Milken Community High School, Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin from Sinai Akiba Academy and Rabbi Ari Segal from Shalhevet High School — all more or less said that they would be willing to screen the film. Ablin was a little more blunt: “I think the entire rating system in terms of ‘protecting kids’ is ridiculous and misses the mark.”
All three also readily admitted that mild bullying is as much a part of Jewish day school culture as it is anywhere else, and they all believe that Jewish schools offer the best antidote to cruel behavior: a prescribed educational system guided by moral development.
“The entire purpose of Jewish education is to express to children that they have a larger purpose beyond themselves,” Ablin said. “Children are actively narcissistic, and have to be taught to get outside their own insecure neediness to understand that they’re part of larger concentric circles that need their energy, their creativity, [and] their potential. And we do that within a Jewish framework, with Jewish values and Jewish precedents.”
Segal, head of the Modern Orthodox Shalhevet, said he doesn’t consider bullying an “acute” issue, though it exists. “Any principal or head of school that says they have a completely bully-free environment is putting their head in the sand,” he said. “Hurt people hurt people, and you’re always going to have people who are hurt in life, and we can’t control that.”
Shalhevet, he added, has implemented special programs and seminars that address problems such as bullying or domestic violence, though he maintains that the best way to counteract bullying is by exemplifying model behavior. “Our school’s raison d’être is to give kids a voice, give kids a sense that they matter and they have self-worth — this generates a tremendous amount of respect among the kids. It’s not some fancy anti-bullying program, it’s just common sense.”
Scheindlin, headmaster at Sinai Akiba for 35 years, is not persuaded that fixating on the bully craze is an effective way to teach values.
“I don’t like to slap labels on things,” he said. “I’m a contrarian.” Scheindlin doesn’t deny bullying exists but said that in his 35 years at his school, he has seen more acts of kindness than maliciousness. “That doesn’t mean every parent or every kid is perfect, but I think we do have a self-selecting population that has a strong sense of good human values, which makes it a lot easier to deal with these kinds of issues.”
“When you combat bulling inside a Jewish school,” Ablin said, “you’re not only reacting to a problem, you’re constructing the very place in which kids are learning values they need to take into the world anyway.” During the course of his five-year tenure as head of Milken, he said he made the decision to expel a child for bullying only once, though he deals with severe cases at least once a year. “My principal and assistant principals are dealing with [bullying] all the time,” he said. “But when it’s amped up to my level, we’ve got a serious problem.”
All the hullabaloo about bullying has its purpose, though USC’s Astor points out that the urgency is belated, as school violence rates have been dropping steadily since 1994. According to the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice survey, the total crime victimization rate of students ages 12-18 at school declined from 2009 to 2010. Astor said this coheres with a national trend in decreased violent crime, which has been on the decline in cities and suburbs across the United States since the 1940s. It was the news frenzy that surrounded the 1999 Columbine school shooting massacre that galvanized awareness, and fueled the canard that bullying and school shootings have a cause-and-effect relationship. “They don’t,” Astor said. “If there were a correlation between bullying and school shooting, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles.”
Could we imagine a world in which bullies would be the last ones standing?
Because when it comes to individual safety and survival, bullies may have an evolutionary advantage: Selfishness and cheating can win out. But as Lehrer’s article reveals, when it comes to group survival, altruistic groups beat selfish groups. A boost for the band of bystanders.
Hirsch is one of those “upstanding” bystanders. Since the film wrapped, he has sort of adopted Alex Libby, who has been accompanying him to screenings and schools and, well, ratings appeals all across the country. “Alex is like a little brother to me now,” Hirsch said. “He’s like my family. I smile from ear to ear to see how he’s grown and become more confident, and smiles. He’s had a real transformation.
“I think it’s that sense of going to screenings, and getting applauded, and people giving him so much love. He saw that he wasn’t alone. And that he’s brave and he’s likable, and that his story matters.”