The National Catholic Review

 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.

Comments

Matthew Pettigrew | 5/10/2012 - 12:48pm
There is an article in today's Washington Post that describes some pranks that Mitt Romney participated in when he was in high school. Some of those pranks, if witnesses to them are describing them accurately, sound a lot like bullying. Mr. Romney, through his campaign, says that he has no memory of the incidents. But this seems like it would be a perfect time for him to make a strong anti-bullying statement. So far, however, his campaign officials have declined a request for an interview.
Molly Roach | 5/10/2012 - 7:04am
Where do we think that kids learn about how to bully others if not from adults?  I think it's pointless to treat this like a problem of the young.  The kids will continue to bully as long as the adults do it.  When the adults change their behaviors, the kids will be able to change as well.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 5/10/2012 - 5:40am
If a kid is being stabbed with ball-point pens on the school bus, that is a huge problem and it needs to stop. If a grown-up behaved that way on public transportation, the driver would call the police and they'd lock the nut up.

But too often, school policies aimed at reducing "bullying" grow and expand until they encompass normal, even healthy, adolescent behavior. Part of being an adolescent is learning how to function as a member of a pack. Kids who insist on being disagreeable to their classmates, demand excessive attention, complain, boast, snitch, shirk responsibility and demand to have self-centered idiosyncracies "accepted" and "affirmed" can benefit enormously from the adverse reactions of their peers. A kid who never learns how to get along in a pack can end up a loser for life. If it's just a little shoving and some name-calling, that's not "bullying" and it shouldn't be put in the same category as stabbing with sharp implements.

Dog owners know that when you take a new puppy to the dog park for the first time, it can take him a while to learn how to relate to other dogs. If the humans keep interfering every time somebody growls, the puppy may never learn.
Mary Wood | 5/10/2012 - 1:49am
Thank you, Fr Coleman, for this thoughtful review of a film whose subject is bullying.  I appreciate that this is an enormous problem for schools. pupils, parents and teachers.  However -
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Chris Nunez & Jim McCrea (##6&7) have pointed to the wider application in "adult" life, and their remarks are beginning to give some definition to my long-time attempts to understand my parish priest.  He is a vigorous ultra-retro liturgist, with an ortho-toxic theology and the management style of a control freak.  And he's assiduous in his care for the sick, dying and dead - basically an upright man, I'm sure.  (Though he is personally reticent to the point of deep secrecy).
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His treatment of his healthy parishioners and his re-organization of parish worship, furniture, pastoral arrangements and relationships with other Christians in town have caused puzzlement to all and acute distress to not a few, some of whom now worship elsewhere.  It is hard to understand what has prompted this intelligent young (41) man, 8 years ordained, to try to put our mediocre local wine into old bottles, even by disobeying a direct command of the Bishop.
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Looking at this article and comments I begin to see that he may well have been bullied at his English public  (ie privately funded) school, and in some measure survived.  But he learned there the Us v Them lessons of polarisation and scapegoating described by Chris Nunes as features of the religious "unity" forged in our old church.  
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He has divided our parish from his first Sunday, he is the laughing-stock of his fellow-clergy and he is highly ambitious.  He has transformed our backwoods church into the diocesan centre for the "traditional" Latin Mass and Sacraments.  Some of us are suffering a form of bereavement, and hope is low.  We need your prayers as we look upon the future of the Catholic Church three-dimensional among us.
JIM MCCREA | 5/9/2012 - 6:48pm
If this church is going to start to speak against bullying, the leaders will have a hard time looking in the mirrors without seeing some of the most persistent bulliers around.
Chris NUNEZ | 5/9/2012 - 5:32pm
I appreciate Fr. John Coleman's commentary on the movie. I too saw it less than two weeks ago. But I'm struck by Fr. John's comment:
 "I also wonderedd why we hear so little about bullying in church teaching. Bullying is bad for those bullied and for the bullies."

He's absolutely right. Why do we hear so little? After all, the whole of our Judeo-Christian Scriptures are precisely about revealing the bonding rituals that require excluding, exiling, hanging, crucifying somebody (usually from within the group) in order to create a sense of 'unity' among the perpetrators - but it's a false unity. This is the negative side of bonding behaviors and rituals. True unity entails taking the outcast and restoring them to a caring community. Whis is what our scriptures also reveal. So, why do we hear so little about this behavior when it is precisely what is reveal as the 'illness' of humankind, along with the antidote to the 'illness'?

David Pasinski | 5/9/2012 - 3:31pm
Watching this film with my two teens and their frieind in a relatively affluent suburban school was insightful. While they were apprpriately outraged at the bullying and said how it was often more subtle in their privileged environment that truly has tried to address the issue, While they said some teachers and counselors wee good, others were not and they both laughed at and said they were aware of some teachers and administrators who approached those profiles.

It is hard to beleive how sadly un-self-aware the counselor is of her contribution to this atmosphere - and scary to think of others how there.
Thomas McCullough | 5/9/2012 - 8:11am
I was battered constantly among fellow students, but there was religion, literature and art. Students now frequently have nothing else and are bullied into an appalling nothingness.
JIM MCCREA | 5/8/2012 - 3:07pm
Ed is sooooooooo very correct.

Why do so many Catholic secondary schools, colleges and universities over-emphasize contact sports?  I know that many wannabe parents like to live vicariously through their children's successes, particularly athletic successes, but the amount of time, money and energy spent on these programs simply detracts from the educational aspects for which Catholic schools were founded to begin with.

Don't give me all that blather about developing the "whole person," either.  Sounds semi-great in theory, but how many high school athletes' education has suffered because of the demans of "the coach?" i.e, their parents AND the coach.
ed gleason | 5/8/2012 - 2:45pm
IMO..Our culture that emphasizes athletics and individual success is a group stimulus toward bullying. Parents, coaches and teachers who show too much admiration for athletic, individual success are contributors to bullying.
Beth Cioffoletti | 5/8/2012 - 7:42am
"Quite frankly, bullying is a sin. We probably need to address it in our religious education programs in parishes and Catholic schools."

I get the sense that bullying is the childhood expression of the fear and insecurity, projection, that is at the root of the human problem.  We attack our own anxieties in the other person (or religion, or political party, or country).  If we don't address this in our churches and schools, what are churches and schools for?

Religion can do a lot to help the language of psychology become more relevant and understandable.  Just calling bullying a "sin" is helpful in understanding the profound devastation that results from physically or verbally taunting a child.
Elaine Tannesen | 5/13/2012 - 8:04pm
Thank you for addressing this cruel behavior, behavior that can leave scars on a person's heart for the rest of their lives.
In over 35 years of parenting and teaching I have seen many victims of bullying.  One of my students wore newspapers under his shirts to prevent the bruising.  Another had to cut out the gum that was spit into her hair almost every day.  Another, in an expensive private christian school, spent her breaks and lunch hours in a stall in the bathroom to escape the cruelty. I have seen bullying at the bus stops, on the playground, in classrooms, and, just about anywhere that a bully or most likely a pack of bullies can get away with it.
It is my opinion that kids and adults bully for just that reason, not just because they have been bullied or are insecure.  Bullies act that way because they ENJOY it and because they can get away with it.  Just like a pack of wolves they select a likely victim and do and say all those hurtful things.
Our culture sends hidden messages-"despise the weak", "settle your scores by violence", "you are a winner or loser, don't be a loser". Or, if your child is the bigger and more aggressive,"just let them work it out".  "He deserved it." 
However, kids can learn that bullying is absolutely not allowed.  They can learn to feel shame for the pain that they have caused.  One school in which I taught had several classes of children with disabilities, typical victims of bullying.  The entire culture of the school was against this behavior and any infraction was addressed immediately. Bullying was addressed as wrong, hurtful, and absolutely unacceptable behavior.  There were few cases of bullying in this school.

Matthew Pettigrew | 5/10/2012 - 1:18pm
In fairness to Mr. Romney, I see that he apologized this morning for pranks that "might have gone to far." As far as I can tell, he did not address the issue of bullying.