March 21, 2012
The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most
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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.”