The Documentary “Bully”: A Social Worker’s Perspective

April 23, 2012


“Bully” the documentary was recently released in Houston and other cities following heated press about its rating. The PG13 rating is appropriate for high school and some junior high aged children. For younger kids it’s important to realize that this is not comic book hero in a costume violence, this is not Hunger Games in a fictional country violence. This is pain and humiliation, not softened by script, music score and lighting. The message is in your face and could be your or my child’s story. No matter how important the message and I truly believe it’s a strong message, you still have to ask yourself what the emotional effect will be on your own child.

If you’re wondering whether or not I liked the documentary, yes I DID like it. I went with trepidation about not being able to handle any violence, and with angst about feeling the deep sorrow of those families whose children had committed suicide. At the end however, there was a slender yet sinewy thread of hope that wrapped itself around my heart.

Lee Hirsch, director, follows 5 family’s experiences of their children being bullied. Interestingly, the story doesn’t focus as much on physical acts of bullying as much as

verbal and emotional cruelty and the undercurrent of apathy from adults. It hits close to home and our reaction is visceral when viewing the capacity of children to separate out from the pack whomever they perceive as weak and prey on him/her.

In some ways the movie serves as a barometer showing the health of our communities. It measures the level of disconnect we allow between one another. At what point do I switch off and say, ‘you are not like me’ and distance myself from your life? Differences might be education, economic, intellectual delay, clumsiness, a wheelchair, a tic, a misshapen body, being gay, social deficits. No matter what it is, our response to a person’s difference or weakness reveals the truth about who we truly are. Do we accept the difference and include the person? Or, do we disconnect and thus isolate that person. In order to bully, you have to disconnect yourself from your target on some level.

I think every question this movie raises, boils down ultimately to one concern: “How do I keep my child safe?” As you delve through the layers of information presented, the answer is, it starts with “you”. You have to be a safe person to confide in and trust, a person who will understand and protect.

You have to be that safe person, a safe place for not only your child to come to but one whom their friends can come to, who the peers in their classroom can come to. You model acceptance and respect for people who are different and your child will learn from you. You model empathy and connection treasuring our shared humanness and ability to connect.

We also see the disengagement of bystanders, failure of community systems to provide safety, the helplessness of parents, the rationalization of schools about bullying and their lack of knowledge in how to effectively address a culture of bullying, the despair of victims who commit suicide in order to escape being bullied and the minimization of consequences for bullies.

It starts with you but as "Bully" shows, one person cannot always keep a child safe; it is about building safe communities. Each safe community starts with individuals like you and I creating norms. We build a safe community by engaging with each other and living out what we speak. We create a culture where bullying is despised, and kindness and acceptance modeled. We make our instructions concrete about kind words, kind actions, standing up FOR others and standing AGAINST belittling others.

It STARTS with you, and moves to we — because culture is the cumulative effect of shared beliefs from all of us in the community.

The thread of hope I feel running through the stories comes from parents and children who in their greatest moments of pain and vulnerability still reach out through the trauma and attempt to engage with us. In their weakness they are the ones who are strong!

The bravery of those courageous conversations with the public ignites turning points for any of us who will engage and connect in return.

"Bully" is not only about tormenting the helpless but also speaks to the strength of affected and broken individuals willing to, “make a difference, one at a time.”

This documentary is a touchstone for many people and I hope to explore further with you how we can keep children safe because undoubtedly this will be every parent’s question.

Have you seen “Bully”? If so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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