I remember it like it was yesterday: Kids picking on him for his size or because his hair was always a mess. His speech was slow. I don’t remember ever seeing his dad. He was quiet. Always sat in the back, tried to stay out of the way. Hard to do when you are the tallest kid in 5th grade. And in 6th.
I left his school after 6th grade. And I was in high school when I heard the news.
He had committed suicide. I was told he’d been given a note that day that said he’d be better off dead. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if that part is true, but I do know the bullying continued from grade school long into high school. You know what else I was told? That he used to stay after school to walk other bullied kids home. That breaks my heart.
And it breaks my heart that he killed himself that day because he was bullied.
This was more than 20 years ago.
You don’t need to tell me bullying is a problem. It doesn’t surprise me to hear more than 13 million kids will be bullied in schools this year. And 3 million will be absent from school because they don’t feel safe there.
When I chatted with Bully director, Lee Hirsch, he told me he hopes so too: “Bullying has been in the headlines, but it is always tragedy and fear,” Hirsch says. “The conversation is always about raising alarm. But now it is about how can parents talk to their kids, and to see the way the youth is stepping up to get involved is exciting.”
Bully opened in Los Angeles and New York on March 30th. A lot of early press for the documentary focused on the film’s ‘R’ rating — given, in large part, it was said, not because of heavy content or violence, but because of the use of foul language. But it seems as though that ‘R’ rating and the publicity it generated was a gift. Hirsch explains: “It gave us a platform we never would have had. Half a million people signed the petition at Change.org, giving celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Justin Bieber and Kelly Ripa a way to rally with us.”
If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you are bound to be moved by David and Tina Long’s story — their 17-year-old son Tyler committed suicide in 2009 after years of abuse at the hands of classmates — as well as that of Alex Libby, a then-12-year old, whose struggle at the hands of fellow students is well-documented. Hirsch was largely motivated by his own childhood experience, so witnessing Alex’s physical abuse on his school bus ride (shown in the movie trailer) wasn’t easy. “It was a struggle because there was lots happening in that moment, but we didn’t want to add to the risk,” Hirsch says. “The reality is, Alex knew we had his back. This was an active intervention. He wanted people to know the bullying was happening.”
Hirsch gives a lot of credit to East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa, where the documentary was shot: “It took a lot of courage for them to allow us to make this film. It was very brave. Most schools wouldn’t have done it. This is a district, a superintendent wanting to be better.
Even Alex’s own parents were unaware that he was being bullied like this. They knew only that “something” was wrong: their son was not the same child he had been. He was unhappy and withdrawn. “If you have ever searched for an answer to a problem and were unable to find it, and felt completely defeated … only to find that the answer was the worst answer in the world — that’s how we felt,” explains Jackie Libby, Alex’s mom.
But though Alex is now at a different school and has many friends, she insists he hasn’t changed. What she sees is who he used to be. “It is incredible,” she says. “My family and I discussed it: there is no greater gift than getting your child back. The Longs don’t get that option, so we want to pay it forward. We want this for more families.”
Hirsch describes Alex as a “joy to watch,” and Alex himself now offers advice to kids experiencing the same struggles he did. “Tell someone about it,” he says. “Being alone makes you feel worse. Speak up. If you see it happening to someone else, tell a friend.”
Bully aims to show the reality of what happens and how terrifying it can be. The documentary gives voice to some kids who are experiencing it, some parents left behind, and the administrators and teachers who struggle to find the right way to handle it.
The film will be in 55 additional cities nationwide on April 13th. To join the movement, head to the film’s official website.
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