AFT, NEA Seek Answers After Advance Screening of ‘Bully’

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A screening of the film "Bully," opening in theaters nationwide April 13, was held in Washington, D.C., April 10. Co-sponsored by the AFT and the NEA, the screening drew a crowd of about 450. Following the showing, AFT president Randi Weingarten and NEA president Dennis Van Roekel led a panel discussion about solutions to student bullying.

Bully video still

The documentary, which Time magazine calls "as vivid as any horror film," follows five young victims of abuse by other students, including two suicides. The cruelty, often hidden from adults and often denied even when children report it, is so wrenching that the movie begs to be discussed and acted upon in local communities. It features students from high schools in Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi and Oklahoma during the 2009-10 school year, tracing their lives in real time and in their own words, from school buses to suburban streets.

“This movie is devastating and compelling,” Weingarten said, “and it needs to be seen.”

Since previewing the movie last year at AFT TEACH, the AFT has been a strong supporter of "Bully" and its social action group, the Bully Project, along with other initiatives to help stop bullying.

The panel discussion focused on practical solutions to stop bullying. Weingarten offered two steps:

  • Stop the easy dismissal of bullying as “Boys will be boys, kids will be kids.” Schools and their environments, she said, need to be safe havens for all children.
  • Instead of blaming people, promote better behavior. The way to start, and what “Bully” does, is to tell people’s stories. Weingarten told her own story of coming out as a lesbian, and how teenagers thanked her for letting everyone know that “it’s OK to be different.” What she finds inspirational, Weingarten said, is that the film’s creator and director, Lee Hirsch, has told a story that can change people’s behavior.

The conversation included a discussion about whether parents and teachers have the tools they need to advocate for children. Hirsch said that “teachers sometimes try to engage, and they’re pushed down from the top.” One of the parents in the movie, Jackie Libby, added that it is wrong to remove victims, but not bullies, from buses, classes or schools where the bullying is taking place.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali helped open the session, and panelists included James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The film originally was unrated, but after a public outcry and an agreement to pare down the number of swear words, the movie was granted a PG-13 rating on April 5. Michigan high school student Katy Butler, who came out as a lesbian in middle school and had her finger broken by a bully, led the fight for the lower rating so that younger students and their parents could watch the film together. Butler started a petition on Change.org. Within a week she had 100,000 signatures, and within a month the movie had its PG-13 rating.

AFT local affiliates nationwide, including the Chicago Teachers Union, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and United Teachers of Dade in Florida, are holding screenings of “Bully.” Other AFT locals, including the Houston Federation of Teachers, Houston Educational Support Personnel, United Educators of San Francisco and United Teachers Los Angeles, are publicizing the film, encouraging members to see it and share it.

Lobby day(L to R) George Williams, Kaylee Stephens of the Oregon School Employees Association, and Pater Nalli, aide to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

AFT activists already have begun advocating for federal-level measures to curb bullying. Dozens of paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, often the first to witness shunning and other kinds of harassment, came to Washington, D.C., last month for the American Association of Classified School Employees’ annual legislative conference. The PSRPs spent an afternoon urging federal lawmakers to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act, S. 506 and H.R. 1648, which would require school codes of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment as well as provide training for school employees.

George Williams, president of the AACSE and president of the AFT-affiliated Madison County (Fla.) Education Association, says bullying would not have come to the forefront without national exposure such as the “Bully” documentary and federal legislation. “We have children who are dealing with tremendous pressures every day,” he says. “But with education about bullying, we can make a difference. We have to make a difference.”

Take action

The Bully Project also is compiling a list of songs that students feel empower them to take a stand against bullying. Nominate a song by leaving a comment or hashtag at #BullyList on Twitter through Thursday, April 12. The top songs will be posted Friday. [Annette Licitra, Tom Lansworth, Adrienne Coles, Tim Shea/photos by Michael Campbell and Alfredo Flores/video by Matthew Jones]

April 11, 2012