I recently saw the excellent documentary film, Bully, which I found both quite absorbing and equally disturbing. It documents several victims of bullying in mostly rural school settings. I agreed with several of the leading film critics I checked out on the web site, Rotten Tomatoes, that the film should be made required viewing in schools but I also agreed with those critics who said that the film is a bit one-sided by only looking at kids who have been bullied and does not helpfully focus on the cognate issue of what makes someone a bully and what being a bully does to them.
The main characters in the film are the father and mother of Tylor Long ( David and Tina) whose son, Tylor, 17, had hung himself to escape school bullying. The Longs have made anti-bullying a campaign of their lives. Another set of parents also were dealing with the suicide of their eleven year old son who had been bullied. Much of the film followed Alex Libby from Sioux Falls, in classrooms, cafeterias and on school buses. The film's shots on the school bus resemble a scene taken right out of Lord of the Flies, as Alex is taunted, repeatedly stabbed with ball point pens and pushed out of his seat.
The directors of the documentary were so disturbed by the scenes they shot that they showed them to Alex's parents who had no idea how hassled their son had been. Many kids who are bullied do not report their bullying to adults. One study reported that only about one in three report bullying to adults, for fear of retaliation from the school bullies or so that they will not seem so weak. Alex tells his parents in the film: " They punch me, strangle me, take things from me, sit on me. Sometimes they push me so hard it makes me want to be the bully!" Alex, a gawky, nerdy looking boy of 14 has few school friends. He said that the way he had to deal with the systematic bullying was to shut down on his feelings ( a not un-typical reaction of kids who are bullied.)
Another person the documentary follows is JeMeya Jackson, a teen age girl who, in response to consistent bullying behavior against her, stealthfully stole her mother's gun and brandished it on a school bus to frighten back those who bullied her. She never used the gun but was liable in Mississippi to something like 142 possible felony counts for her behavior. A thoughtful judge, however, saw through the over-reaction. We now know that the two studetns who killed thirteen and wounded twenty-four and, then, committed suicide at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 had been gifted students who had, themselves, been systematically bullied for years. In 2000, the Secret Service issued a report that looked at thirty-seven school shootings. They estimated that two-thirds of them involved students who had been bullied. It is not, perhaps, an exaggeration, to speak of America's growing bullying crisis.
The web site, Stopbullying.gov, defines the behavior as follows; " Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally and excluding some from a group on purpose.". Presently, forty-nine states have some variant of anti-bullying laws but it is not clear how closely they are monitored or executed.
Studies show that bullying is likely to occur principally in later elementary and middle school years. In the documentary film, we also notice a rather slip-shod attention to bullying by teachers and school officials who are too apt either to exclaim, " kids will be kids" or despair: " What can we do about it?" Besides the bullies, there seems to be a somewhat widespread bully mentality in groups where bystanders remain fairly passive ( or even egg on the bullies), sometimes for fear that they, too, might become victims. After the fact, the documentary film shows several students reporting having seen bullying behavior which they simply passively witnessed at the time. One estimate is that 85% of the time, school kids take such a passive bystander role when witnessing bullying behavior.
The spate of teen suicides ( seemingly rising) also connects with bullying because of race, sexuality, minority status, disabilities. It does seem that bullying is much more widespread than normally assumed and that school settings are fairly lackadaisical about confronting it. One study of 432 gifted students in eleven states which was published in 2006, in the journal, Gifted Child Quaterly, found that two-thirds of those academically talented 8th graders claimed they were bullied and one-third admitted that they entertained violent feelings about the bullying they had received. In the documentary film, one young man asked to shake hands with someone he had a fight with exclaimed that his tormentor sought him out, even though he always tried to avoid him.
What about the bullies? Often they reflect their own authoritarian home up-bringing. Sometimes they bully to cover up their own sense of inadequacy, shame or anxiety. As one study of bullying puts it: " Bullies may behave this way to be perceived as popular or tough or to get attention. They may bully out of jealousy or are acting out because they themselves had been bullied.". Much to my surprise when I talked about the film to two people I know they told me that they had been bullied as youngsters. One told about a hazing ritual ( much of our hazing rituals are awful, cruel and humiliating bullying) connected with becoming an altar boy. New recruits were made, repeatedly, to eat altar incense. When the boy told his father about this, the father went to the pastor of the parish who stopped the hazing ritual. But that just intensified, he said, the bullying behavior by the other students who tried to get back at him for ' ratting' on them. He mentioned meeting one of those bullies many years later when the man apologized to him for his behavior years before.
Another person I spoke to about the movie told me he had been bullied in grammar school because he was so small, slight of build and not terribly athletic. But, he said, one teacher at his school was effective in monitoring and, then, stopping bullying behavior. Of course, bullying does not take place only in schools. There are species of workplace bullying. Bullying is endemic in prisons. There seem some gender differences in kinds of bullying. Boys tend to be more physically abusive. Girls are more likely to gossip, spread rumors or simply exclude an unwanted girl from their social circles.
I came away from the film thinking we need to pay attention more systematically to bullying. those who are bullied are often terribly hurt for life or resort to teen suicide. They, like the Columbine slaughterers, may, themselves eventually resort to violence. I I also wonderedd why we hear so little about bullying in church teaching. Bullying is bad for those bullied and for the bullies. It can create a bully mentality group atmosphere which is nefarious for trust and communication. Quite frankly, bullying is a sin. We probably need to address it in our religious education programs in parishes and Catholic schools. We may also need to pay more attention to the harmful effects on the young of the now growing phenomenon of cyberbullying.