Bully, the Movie

GeekMom TV and Movies
My son, getting interviewed by our local news network after we saw the movie Bully. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

Not long after my children returned to public school after two-and-a-half years of homeschooling, it started.

At this point, my older son was in 8th grade and so gym meant changing in a locker room with the other kids in his class. A couple of his peers developed a habit of coming up behind my son while he was changing, cupping his chest, and informing him that he had breasts. On the gym floor and in the hallways between classes, these boys would leer moon-faced at my child and call him “Scoops.” At the time, my son shared none of this with his father or me or his inclusion teacher or the school psychologist that he was seeing once a week.

Part of the reason that we’d decided to homeschool in the first place was because my younger son had been physically bullied in elementary school–finally, after a third call in as many days from the school nurse telling me that my 2nd grader had been injured again by a peer at recess, and a third day of ignored calls to discuss the matter with the principal, I picked both children up from school and left a message with the principal saying, “I will allow these children back on school grounds when I have a guarantee that they will be safe.”

One day passed. No phone call. Two days passed. I called the district superintendant’s office. A message was taken.

On the third day, the principal finally called. She opened our conversation by saying that she was very disappointed in me for keeping my children out of school for three days. The second point she tried to make was her last: “Mrs. Schwalm, you cannot possibly expect me to guarantee your children’s safety at all times in this building–I am only one person.”

“This conversation has ended,” I immediately replied. “You’ll have the paperwork for homeschooling on your desk tomorrow morning.”

And so, we homeschooled for two-plus years–and it was great. We read together and went to parks together and visited museums and wrote plays together…and then I felt it was time to send my children back into the fray. Ironically, I was worried that by homeschooling, I was making things too easy for my sons and blocking them from experiencing necessary social challenges or developing important coping skills.

The way we found out that my older son was being bullied was through a call from the middle school principal informing me that my son was being placed on three days of ISS (in-school suspension). Having suffered through months of taunting, he’d finally had enough, and when the boy who had been teasing him the most reached out to cup him in the chest for the hundredth time as he was passing my son’s locker, my son had thrown himself at the boy and knocked him against a wall. No one had been hurt but a half-dozen teachers standing at their doorways monitoring the hallway had witnessed the entire inelegant encounter.

The principal’s voice was heavy on the phone as she spoke with me. “I know what happened–all of it now–but we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence in the school. The other child is being suspended out of school–at home with a parent–for a week, and other measures will be taken, as well. I have to protect the privacy of the other student but I am telling you: we will put tools and consequences in place so that this will not happen again.”

Outside of a lecture on the importance of talking to trusted adults when you need help, we didn’t punish our son at home. On the night of the incident we actually went out for pizza and ice cream. He did his three days of ISS and when he came back to class, two boys in his gym class told him that they thought he was cool for standing up to the other kid and not taking it anymore; a trio of girls nearby agreed.

A week later, my son joined a running club for children with disabilities. Within six months he’d lost 40 lbs. and was requesting that we buy healthier snacks when we went food shopping. He has never felt like a victim at school again. At his most recent annual review meeting as we discussed moving my son out of inclusion and into a more-rigorous curriculum, his teacher told me, “Whenever I pass him in the halls, he is chatting and surrounded by friends.”

Closer. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

So, after all of this, I thought it would be a good idea to go as a family last Friday to see the documentary Bully. My older son is a member of his high school’s Anti-bullying Club and was planning shortly on participating in its Gay-Straight Alliance’s Day of Silence to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. I wanted my children to see that they were not alone in experiencing either bullying or inept school personnel. I thought that the movie would give their experiences a broader context and soften some of the residual sting in all our memories.

The boys brought a friend and all three agreed afterwards that the movie was worthwhile. “That was a lot better than I thought it was going to be, actually,” my younger son confided. “I thought it was going to be boring but it really wasn’t–and I can understand why you wanted us to see it.” As my older son walked off then to be interviewed by the local television station, I excused myself to the bathroom for one last, brief, shuddering crying jag before we all drove off to an afternoon of cheese fries and amusement park rides at Coney Island.

It may sound melodramatic, but I cried through this entire film. The opening scenes intersperse home movies of a toddler giggling up at a camera with scenes of his somber father recounting the life events that ultimately lead up to Tyler Long committing suicide at 17, and that was it: 90 minutes of continuous crying and a headache that followed me all day until bed.

I saw aspects of my children in almost all of the children followed in this film: like my older son, Alex has some developmental issues and refuses to tell the adults in his life how badly he is being abused. Like my younger son, Alex had a frail, perilous babyhood. Like the principal at Alex’s school who tells his parents, “These children are just as good as gold,” the principal at our elementary school was clearly not trained in creating a school culture that rooted out bullying and abuse. Like my older son, Ja’Meya also finally decided that she needed to fight back against her bullies–but she didn’t just push a child against a wall, she brought her mother’s handgun onto her school bus and brandished it in front of her peers in an effort to get them to leave her alone (and wound up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for six months).

“Geeky” Tyler Long suffered through years of being abused in his school’s locker room and being called “a fag” before he hung himself in his bedroom closet. Ty Smalley was a beautiful little boy with freckles and wide eyes similar to my younger son’s features. He killed himself after he was suspended from school for standing up to a bully…

I can’t help but believe that if conditions were only a little different, I could be one of the devastated, shell-shocked parents in this movie. Don’t mistake me: I empathized with the other parents in Bully but I was crying for me and my children. The policeman in the film who suggests that 14-year-old Ja’Meya be charged with 44 counts of kidnapping and receive hundreds of years of imprisonment because she hadn’t “really been hurt” simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Bully is playing in a still-expanding number of theaters nationwide. The movie was initially given an R rating by the MPAA but after a great deal of media attention and public outcry, this was changed to PG-13. Go with a group of people you care about. Get ice cream afterwards. Or cheese fries.

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20 thoughts on “Bully, the Movie

    1. My 10 year old daughter was bullied by a group of 6 to 9 middle school and high school students as she rode her bike down the alley home. It started out friendly then went straight downhill fast. I called the police when my daughter was able to tell me what happened. It wasn’t until the police arrived that she told the whole story step by step. I was shocked, furious and shaken. What was done to her, said to her, and alluded too was unspeakable. We live in a very affluent town so I even more shaken to know that these kids did what they did coming from privileged homes. My daughter’s feeling of being safe physically and emotionally have been forever changed. They “punished” my daughter, but what law exists to punish these juveniles? Telling my daughter “I am sorry” to me is not enough.

      1. Lindsey, what you wrote breaks my heart. I’ve been thinking for a day to try to come up with the best response to your question. I guess, the first thing that I would make sure of is that your daughter isn’t experiencing long-term trauma from the incident. I would have her speak with her pediatrician about the incident and consult with the pediatrician on whether or not your daughter might benefit from talking with a clinician about the experience. She probably felt powerless during this situation and may need to talk about it with a professional to hash out some confusing feelings.

        Second, and I say this as a mother, not a lawyer, if any sexual innuendo occurred during this incident, these young middle school and high school students need to be held accountable. They should be required to attend some sort of counseling program on sexual abuse, themselves. Have you consulted an attorney to discuss legal options? I would also call the schools the children involved attend. The schools may say, “This happened after hours, off-grounds, and there is nothing that we can do about it.” Or they might offer some useful advice and consequences.

        My experience is that speaking out is good and powerful but that sometimes things get worse before they get better. Make sure that your daughter’s needs are met and that she is feeling emotionally secure and then TALK ABOUT THIS. That is what I would do, at least. Email me at AndreaGeekMom@me.com if you want to talk about this some more.

    2. 🙂 Thank you, Kadiya. There are times I’ve second-guessed myself, so I appreciate your comment 🙂

  1. I have not seen Bully yet, so I have a question. Does the film go beyond the ‘bullying is a problem’ message, and offer any solutions? I work with youth, I know there is a problem. Most people know there is a problem. The challenge is determining how to address bullying, and I’m wondering if the film attempts to do that at all.

    1. The film does provide some ideas and solutions. Ty Smalley’s parents created a group called STAND FOR THE SILENT (which is on Facebook) and has organized awareness events–one of these events is shown at the end of the movie (and a small piece is also visible in the appended clip).

      The thing is…and my Sociology of Education prof used to make this reference all of the time: “The needs of Manhattan, Kansas vs. the needs of Manhattan, New York.” Same name: very different needs, very different communities. Solutions need to fit the communities they are going to be implemented in. I think that the film-maker was more interested in starting dialogs in individual communities than in offering one-size-fits-all solutions. I think that he wanted people to see the movie, be moved by the stories of these children, and go back into their own communities and implement workable solutions.

      There are also some great resources listed on the movie’s website at http://www.thebullyproject.com .

  2. While I completely respect all the decisions you’ve made for your children (clearly you have done something very, very right), I also empathize with the administrators you dealt with in the case of your son. You shouldn’t have had to wait for return calls from them, but at the end of the day they can no more “guarantee” the safety of your children than you can. I am a high school teacher and have seen my share of bullying, and I know that things have taken on a whole new dynamic in terms of cyber bullying, etc., but I worry that, in the effort to find “someone” to blame, parents go directly to teachers and administrators as not doing “enough”. With class sizes of 35+, unmanageable course loads (sometimes 4 or more preps), and incessant budget cuts, it is illogical to assume that a teacher or staff worker can be present in locker rooms during changing time (would we even want that??) to prevent something like what happened to your son. And even if there could be some sort of administrative omnipresence, what does that really teach our kids about treating all human beings with respect?

    Bullying is a problem that stems from many different sources, and therefore can only be tackled from various angles. To change school policy is no where near enough– there is no school policy in the world that is going to override what children are learning and seeing at home. I am looking forward to seeing the movie, and hope they address this point.

    1. It is not illogical to assume that schools should be a place of learning, and not a place of continuous physical & psychological abuse. If children were taught how to interact with their peers without systematic abuse, there would be no need for administrative omnipresence.

    2. First of all, I am absolutely going on record as saying that while I think that the principal at our elementary school (now retired) was not a good leader, I have nothing but the greatest respect for the principal at our middle school. The difference that I saw between these two principals was that one saw the problem of bullying as too big to fix and the other looks at it as an issue that must constantly be addressed. This second principal SHAPES the school culture with the rules, practices, activities and curriculum in her building.

      What I allude to in my post but will say here explicitly is that both of my children have IEPs and have required special education services. My older son has Nonverbal Learning Disorder, and significant issues with processing speed. My younger son has a very-rare autoimmune disorder that we now keep under control with daily antibiotic use but which meant that he was chronically ill for the first three years of his life, and so, once healthy, required early intervention: As a 3 year old, I was told that he had an IQ of 70. Ten years later he is being dis-enrolled from special education, will no longer receive resource room, takes all general ed. classes, and has made the honor roll and high honor roll for his class this year. And has friends. And is a very capable self-advocate…it has been a tremendous journey to watch him grow up…

      The reason I bring this up is because I believe that because of my children’s health and neurological profiles, they were “ripe” to be picked on by bullies. Both children received speech therapy and psychological counseling to help them learn social skills and to understand pragmatic language. Both also received occupational therapy because they had fine and gross motor dysfunction. In short, both children were socially delayed and uncoordinated. Geeks. And they were bullied because of their disabilities. Children like mine should be able to access a public school curriculum without suffering emotional abuse.

      I am not a perfectionist. But when that first principal told me right off the bat “you cannot expect me to keep your children safe all of the time” what I heard was “I will not try. This is not a priority. I will not dialog with you on this matter.” At that point, my feeling was that I would be sending my children into a dangerous, dysfunctional environment–that nothing was going to change. Unacceptable.

      1. Don’t get me wrong– I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, particularly with how your principal made you feel like you and your child’s safety were not a priority. That IS unacceptable, especially since, as you say, they were vulnerable. I was just offering my perspective from the other side. All of us want schools to be places of learning and not abuse. I would hope that goes without saying. I just think that since the problem doesn’t necessarily lie ONLY in the schools, the solution doesn’t only lie there, either. I worry that some parents (clearly not you) are expecting schools to offer some sort of magical solution that doesn’t exist. Schools do have a part– we need to create a safe learning environment for our kids, no question. But that is much easier said than done. So “society” also has a part– to model good behavior and celebrate those who embody respect and tolerance, but also support politicians and administrators who are trying to give those of us in the “trenches” the tools to create a safe environment for the time we are with your children.

        1. I do agree that a community’s overall culture (not just the school culture) has to be addressed for real change to occur–and that is tricky because each community is different and so a “one size fits all” solution isn’t really possible (for instance: my son worked with his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance to try to impact his school’s culture–not every community would allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to exist in their building. Maybe in another community that role would be taken on by a church youth group or a youth service organization, instead…)

          Research shows that bringing in the kids on the sidelines and encouraging them to say that bullying is not appropriate can be an important way to change the culture. Kind of a “if you see something, say something” campaign. I do not believe that teachers can do this on their own. The whole community has to come together and say “this is a problem and we are going to attack it.” That is the power of an event like the STAND FOR THE SILENT rally seen in the movie. You can’t walk away from a rally like that and think OKAY, PROBLEM SOLVED. It’s more like you can say OKAY, PROBLEM ACKNOWLEDGED.


      2. “But when that first principal told me right off the bat “you cannot expect me to keep your children safe all of the time” what I heard was “I will not try.”

        You gave the principal and unreasonable ultimatum that she could not meet. She was correct that she cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, and she did not say she won’t try. You then became the unreasonable parent that expected the school to do the impossible. If you wanted a dialog around what the school and you could do to work together to solve the bullying problem, you should have asked for that. If the schools efforts after that were unacceptable then you would of course have to look at different options from homeschooling to another school if available. Bullying and all other education problems come down to an issue that requires BOTH parents and teachers to work together on. The schools will never be perfect in dealing with any problem and in the end it’s up to the parents to teach their children strategies for dealing with things like bullying or whatever else the school isn’t handling well. You did end up doing that and it appears to have worked.

        1. I’m sure that principal would agree with you, Tim. Or would have at that point in time. My ultimatum was not impossible, though: the school could have given my child a 1 on 1 paraprofessional–not the ideal, but that was something that they could have done almost immediately until other supports kicked in.

          My younger son has an autoimmune disorder called Hyper IgE Syndrome and two of the many components of his disorder are that his bones break more easily than other children’s bones (and when they do, do not heal properly) and that he is prone to pneumonia and lung infections. When he gets lung infections, he builds up abscesses. Most people would pop a fever with these infections but he does not show symptoms. He had these abscesses in his lungs as an infant and toddler, one of them popped, and his lung collapsed requiring 6 weeks of hospitalization before his 2nd birthday. That experience was one of the criteria he actually had to meet in order to be diagnosed with his disorder. He was diagnosed at age 3 and was placed at that time on antibiotics to stave off infection–it is an imperfect solution but it has provided him with ten years of reasonably good health which has given us the breathing space we needed to deal with the developmental and physical issues that also accompany his diagnosis.

          On the day that I pulled my son out of school, he was pushed off the ladder from the top of a slide. What his doctors had told me at that point was that a fall from that height could have caused broken bones or caused his one damaged lung to re-collapse. Let me remind you: pushed from a slide and no one from the school would speak to me to tell me how this was not going to happen again.

          Like you, the school had pegged me as a certain “type” of parent. My son had been in the special education system for 5 years at that point. The school knew that my son had this health diagnosis, it was there in his file and I brought it up at all of our meetings, but because my son appears healthy until he is so sick he needs to be hospitalized and because they had never dealt with someone with his diagnosis before, the school assumed that I was exaggerating the severity of his condition.

          The incident that I recount in this post did not occur in a vacuum. I had been fighting for years with this district to get my children the services and supports they needed in order to access the free and appropriate public education they are guaranteed under federal law.

          I will add: it is no miracle or mistake that my children “appear to be doing well now.” They are where they are now because they received years of careful, intentional parenting AND years of social skills counseling and speech therapy (that taught my children the coping skills and language decoding skills they would not have developed naturally).

          What I didn’t realize at the time was that this school did not understand my son’s autoimmune disorder. I was giving them websites and printouts and telling them about my son’s hospitalizations and they were seeing a child who needed sunscreen before he went outside to play and who, on average, missed 5 days of school a year.

          When we returned to public school, the principal demanded to speak with my son’s infectious disease doctor. This doctor had been working with my son for 10 years and, after getting our permission, told her everything.

          Since then, no one has ever acted like I was unreasonable.

          From what I have read on listservs, my experience as the parent of a child with an autoimmune disorder is actually quite common. Schools don’t “get it.” Not every child with an autoimmune disorder needs to live in a bubble.

          Under those circumstances, what would you have done, Tim? Would you have been more open to compromise than I was? Would you have let your child go back to school the next day?

  3. I have a two and half year old daughter, beautiful, confident, fearless, smart. I am terrified of sending her to school because I fear that she will be bullied, and the beautiful light I see in her eyes every day will be destroyed. I know not every child is bullied, not every child commits suicide, but like you I see every child who has had these experiences through the eyes of a mother who fears those things for her child. Thank you for posting this. I was very happy that the movie “Bully” received a better rating so more teens could see it and I hope it makes a difference. I’m so very happy that your boys are at schools that take bullying seriously.

    1. Trish, if my kids have taught me one thing, it is this: When problems happen, figure out what is in your control and focus on that. I can’t change the world, can’t change my community–but I am the single biggest force for good in the lives of my children. Just like you are with your daughter. She sounds like she has a great advocate and support if she ever needs it.

  4. As a kid I was bullied all the time in school. Not only by other students, but by teachers. Nothing really made it stop until I found a great group of friends and we ignored the bullies and sort of just dealt with it. Eventually the bullies got tired of picking on us with out any reaction back, so they stopped. These students weren’t called bullies but mean kids. There will be mean kids in every school, every life situation will have mean people.

    The fact is that these students did not just wake up one day and know how to be mean. I once had to spend an afternoon at one of the mean kids houses (brothers were both busy with their sports and parents working, so had to go to the neighbors so I wasn’t alone). The way his parents treated him and each other was awful. I was still very young at the time so I didn’t understand that was the reason why the mean boy was mean to me at school. He thought acting that way was normal. I am in no way saying all homes of the mean kids are this way, but the problem is much larger than school. School just happens to be the place where there are the largest concentrations of kids.

    Another example – One time in after school care, a mean 5th grader was picking on me (I was in 4th grade). He was saying some awful things. I have older brothers so I knew all the ‘bad’ words already and that you weren’t supposed to say them. He stopped when the teacher came back in the room. This went on and on until he moved up to middle school. The next year was great because he was at at different school. The following year we were both at the same school again and waiting to get picked up outside of the public library. He started picking on me again. Only this time, one of my older brothers was picking me up. My brother recognized this kid as a younger brother of one of his classmates (high school age). He saw that I was upset but didn’t know what to do. We didn’t tell our parents. My brother did what he thought he should do as an older brother, he went to talk to the mean boy’s older brother. My brother might have been captain of the wrestling team, but he was not a fighter at all. We always tell him that he should be a lawyer because he is awesome at talking and making his point. The older mean boy got really angry and started a fight with my brother. This happened right in front of the mean boys locker. When the teachers came to break up the fight, they found a couple of knives in the mean boy’s locker. It turns out the mean boys’ home life was awful. The older mean boy was sent to juvenile hall (he had more weapons in his car) and the younger mean boy was sent to live with his grandparents. As much pain and aggravation the mean boy caused me, he was doing only what he knew. He was being like his older brother and acting like his parents did when he was home. Now that I am an adult, it is a lot easier to see the big picture. When I was a kid, I just wanted to kick him in the shins and run away crying.

  5. For me, what’s scary is that even in districts when they have a good anti-bullying program and generally are good with following up with consequences, it doesn’t guarantee anything. The kid who essentially bullied Tyler Clementi, the guy from Rutgers who committed suicide after his roommate bullied him (essentially, that’s what happened, if you think about it)–that bully came from my town, where I KNOW they have a strong stance about anti-bullying in the schools. I know what you are saying, though, Andrea. My son is going through stuff right now where he’s the one who is trying to hold it together among kids who are all bullies to the point they are in a special school. We have to take him out of this special school and try a different one, one that’s not full of the problem kids who I expect will be in juvy hall soon enough. It’s so tough to watch, because as much as my son doesn’t like it, he’s picking up their bad habits, and I have to get him out of there.

  6. Perhaps the solution is awareness and action on all levels. Parents need to talk to their kids. Teachers need to be aware in classrooms and step in. I am totally busy–however, I never forget that (especially for the population I teach) school may be the one place where my students feel safe and like they can be kids. There is NOTHING more important than reinforcing that belief. On many occasions I have stopped class to address inappropriate/insensitive behavior. I have also pulled kids aside on both ends privately to address issues. I also suggested that we have a bullying awareness in-service as part of our monthly advisory groups (one teacher per 15 or so kids) and designed the presentation myself. Administrators need to talk the talk and walk the walk and do it OFTEN. Law makers need to ensure there is legislation that protects and the police need to enforce those laws. There is no one solution, rather a network of awareness and action that binds together to fight the problem.

    Also, Andrea in regard to the principal who said “I can’t possibly guarantee…” Her words weren’t the issue–it was her attitude. Why didn’t she call you? Why didn’t she care? Why did she just throw up her hands? Her response should have been, “Here is what I *can* do…” I am here to say that if you are the kind of educator that says you are too busy dealing with state mandated tests and graduation rates to consider the very real emotional needs of our students, then you are in the wrong business. I’m happy when a kid gets a good grade on a test, but happier when I have had an opportunity to make a human connection that may change their life.

  7. One more reason to homeschool.

    I started homeschooling because my older daughter just wasn’t ready for school. By the time my son came along we were settled into the homeschooling lifestyle so I didn’t change anything.

    Thank God.

    My son is a gentle, effeminate young man. He would have been massacred in school. Instead, he is a confidant, secure thirteen year old who laughs, “If I wasn’t weird, I wouldn’t be me!”

    He is fully aware of what bullying is from friends who do go to school, and books and movies like this one. He will certainly encounter jerks in his life, but his self-esteem is being built now. It cannot be undone.

    Interestingly, my daughter told me she thinks she might have been mean in school, just to defend herself and her brother. She’s glad she never had to be that way.

  8. I’m going to see Bully, but I know it’ll be rough. I was bullied all the time at school. From locker room jabs at my sexuality (I’m heterosexual, but at that point hadn’t even gone on a single date yet), to following me around the halls taunting me, to blocking the door to my classroom so I had to push my way past with them taunting me all the while.

    I dealt with it by pushing all of my feeling deep down inside of me and blocking out the world. After all, the more I said/did, the more the bullies had to use against me. That worked, to a degree, but was highly bad for my mental health. I began to get paranoid: Every person laughing, I was convinced, was laughing at me. It took me years to recover. (In some ways, I may never recover. Social situations still fill me with dread.)

    In addition to all this, my son was bullied a few years ago. He was in line (for an anti-bullying assembly ironically) when a kid decided to repeatedly cut in line. He jumped in front of my son who put his hands up to protect his face. Then the other kid punched my son in the stomach so hard, my son was sent to the nurse’s office.

    I met with the teacher and principal and it quickly became apparent they wanted to sweep the matter under the rug. They first claimed nobody saw what happened. Then, they claimed that my son started it (by putting his hands up to protect himself). Then, they told me (and I quote): “He’s not the type of kid who would be bullied.”

    That’s when we took our son out of school for two weeks until the superintendent transferred us to another school. He’s thriving there, actually has friends, and is enjoying learning again. Still, it’s a constant fear of mine that some group of kids will decide that it will be “fun” to pick on him and torment him.

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