If the message of Bully was meant to be “Sorry, kids, but you’re on your own,” then Lee Hirsch’s documentary did a stellar job. The message rings through loud and clear that kids and their parents are the only ones with the power to act against school systems that perpetuate, and even harbor, abusive bullying of both the emotional and physical variety. Time and time again, the film shows that school administrators are incompetent, that parents are powerless, and that bullies will continue to harass their victims.
The issue isn’t badly addressed in the school system; worse, it isn’t addressed at all, to the point where the kids themselves don’t realize what constitutes normal behavior. One of the main victims, Alex, age 14, thinks that the kids bullying him–those stabbing him with pencils and shoving his head under hinged bus seats–are his friends. An administrator in a school whereTyler, age 17, committed suicide due to incessant bullying says that it’s not a problem in her school. When Alex’s parents discuss his harassment with the school principal, she insists the children on his bus are “good as gold.” Even Alex’s parents seem a little clueless, telling him that he needs to stand up to his bullies to prevent his sister from getting harassed when she enters his school. Another worse-than-useless administrator reprimands a victim for refusing to shake the hand of his abuser, who is let go with a smile.
The documentary successfully shows us that bullying is a huge problem, and it reaches us on an emotional level. It reveals gross negligence on the part of bus drivers, teachers, and administrators who routinely see and ignore this behavior, passing it off as “kids being kids.”
But that’s where it leaves us. It fails to provide any meaningful dialogue about solutions. It also doesn’t address cyber bullying — the use of texting or Facebook to harass students-–or bullying in any areas other than rural towns in the Heartland.
The documentary ends with a grassroots movement started byTyler’s parents. They give speeches at schools, release balloons with the names of victims written on them, and stir up an emotional response. But where is the discussion of the cause of bullying, and the discussion of policy changes that could prevent it? We are left withTyler’s parents telling a student that to prevent bullying, he should be nice to the new kid. Showing this without any other discussion of ways to prevent bullying seems like gross negligence–the equivalent of the principal who told the kids to shake hands and be nice.
Bully points out a prevalent problem that has led to the deaths of several individuals, and then is silent on policy, silent on who is really responsible. No attempt is made to talk to the bullies themselves, or the parents of the bullies, and no one seems to make a formal protest about the way in which these fatal situations were handled. The bullies, and what prompts them to this behavior, are left entirely out of the picture–which is odd considering the title.