Documentary ‘Bully’ flawed but spurs vital conversation

Film review

review-bully-movie-image-alex

Kelby is one of the bullied students who had a strong family and friend support system in "Bully."

Alex and Kelby, above, are two of the victims of school bullying who are featured in The Weinstein Company’s documentary “Bully.” Alex, who was born prematurely, in the documentary is portrayed as being called “Fishface” and routinely physically assaulted at school and on the school bus, and Kelby left her school because of very apparently coordinated anti-lesbian discrimination. Below is 18-year-old Sawyer Rosenstein (who is not featured in “Bully”), whose school bully put him in a wheelchair when he was 12 years old. Sawyer and his family just settled with the board of the New Jersey school district for more than $4 million. In the settlement the school board denies that the school failed to protect Sawyer, even though its failure to protect him is quite fucking obvious.

The documentary “Bully” should be required viewing for every American, even those who, like me (a gay man), don’t have a son or daughter in a public school and (most likely) never will.

“Bully” is not only about how cruel and abusive some students can be toward other students, but it’s about how chronically victimized students routinely are failed by the adults in their lives who are supposed to foster and to protect them — not just by school teachers and school administrators, but also by their parents.

An assistant principal featured in “Bully” especially is clueless and worthless — she’s a baby boomer, and it’s all about the baby boomers, so there you go.

In one scene, the assistant principal forces the victim to shake the victimizer’s hand, as though that superficial action were any true solution to the long-term problem of the one student chronically bullying the other. The assistant principal in this incident apparently makes the common, unthinking person’s error in basically asserting that whenever there is a conflict, both sides must be equally guilty. (Actually, that bullshit belief just comes out of the sheer laziness to actually sort it all out and see who truly is at fault, but instead to just try to sweep it all under the carpet.)

In another scene, when a couple of parents come to the assistant principal after having viewed actual video footage of their child’s being seriously, violently bullied on the school bus, the assistant principal (again, a baby boomer) surreally manages to make it all about herself, even whipping out a photo of her grandbaby, stating that of course she cares about all of our babies (of course, the student who is being bullied is not an infant).

The assistant principal also declares that she has ridden that bus herself and that there is no problem whatsoever on the bus. Never mind the facts that there is video footage of the serious problems with violent bullying on that bus and that of course the students are going to behave themselves on the bus when the assistant principal is on board.

What the fuck? With brazenly incompetent, self-interested school administrators like these in our schools, administrators who are more interested in playing politics and in portraying a false portrait of how things are rather than actually being responsible to the students in their care, no fucking wonder bullying is such a problem.

It’s not just the school administrators, of course. The United States of America’s number one spending priority is not its schools, but is the bloated-beyond-belief military-industrial complex.

If enough Americans truly cared about what was going on inside our schools, our schools would be much, much better — including being adequately staffed so that incidents of bullying would be reduced significantly. We have the resources to greatly improve our students’ lives; it’s not a lack of resources, but it’s a lack of caring, including a nationwide public apathy that just allows the powers that be to steal our tax dollars and spend them not on what we need, such as good, safe schools, health care and environmental protection, and to take care of the least among us, but to blow our tax dollars on the military-industrial complex, which is not about defense, but which is about making filthy, treasonously rich swine even richer than they already are through such avenues as colossal military contracting waste and waging bogus wars for corporate expansion, such as how Iraq has been opened to the profiteering of Big Oil via the illegal and immoral Vietraq War.

“Bully” raises these important issues, at least indirectly, but as a documentary is flawed.

“Bully” focuses on bullying that has occurred in public schools in the Southern and Midwestern states of Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Georgia, and ignores bullying that happens elsewhere in the nation. Bullying is a national problem. My guess is that it’s significantly worse in the red states than it is in the blue states, but it happens eveywhere.

“Bully” probably focuses too much on one child, the 12-year-old Alex, who was born prematurely and who, while he’s an affable kid, is different from the others (who call him “Fishface”) and who thus is bullied. That said, Alex’s life is an excellent example of a child who has been failed by most of the adults in his life, not only by his bus driver and his draw-droppingly awful assistant principal, but even by his own father, who advises him to just fight back, even though Alex is fairly slight and probably can’t effectively fight back physically.

Alex’s father tells him that if he doesn’t fight back, his younger sister will be bullied, too — and that’s putting way too much pressure and responsibility upon a minor, and letting the adults continue in their dereliction of duty.

Even Alex’s mother, who apparently is the most genuinely concerned about him, probably should have concerned herself more about what was happening to him at school and on the school bus before she found out through the documentarians’ film footage.

Another flaw of “Bully” is that while we don’t need grotesque details, it sure would be nice to be told in more detail why, exactly, some of the victims of bullying-induced suicide took their own lives. The young man named Tyler, for example. Why was he bullied? Was he gay or suspected to be gay? In “Bully” we are told a lot about Tyler, who hanged himself in his bedroom closet at age 17, but we’re not really told about why he was bullied.

For the most part, “Bully” doesn’t tell us what to think, but lets us come to our own conclusions. The story of Ja’Maya, a black teen who says that she only brought her mother’s handgun with her on her school bus because she wanted to scare the kids who had been bullying her, reeks of racism/white supremacism as we watch yet another stupid white male, baby-boomer sheriff — who perhaps never has been a victim of bullying himself, but perhaps has been a bully his entire life (bullies are, after all, drawn to law enforcement) – declare that no amount of bullying could justify what Ja’Maya did, and we are left with the sense that if Ja’Maya were, say, a white male jock instead of a 14-year-old black female, the “criminal” “justice” system where she lives would have treated her very differently.

Kelby, the 16-year-old lesbian who is featured in “Bully” is eloquent and intelligent and strong, but “Bully” probably doesn’t say enough about the bullying that happens to gay and lesbian and non-gender-conforming students, who comprise probably the most-bullied group of students.

“Bully” should be an invitation for us not only to declare jihad upon bullying in our public schools, but to tackle the bullying that happens in our workplaces as well. In many if not even most workplaces, bullying occurs on a regular basis. The belief that adulthood in and of itself automatically erases the dynamics that we saw in our public school days is a fucking myth.

The perpetrators of bullying in the workplace know better than to get physically abusive/violent in most cases, but verbal abuse/harassment, sexual harassment/sexual abuse and the abuse of power can make the workplace just as hostile as a public school. And just like bullies in school are careful about bullying when no one in authority is present, workplace bullies most often do their deeds when there is no one who might do something about their bullying is around.

Hopefully more documentaries about bullying will be made, although after “Bully,” school administrators might be much less willing to appear on camera.

Stories of bullying abound, such as the current news story about Sawyer Rosenstein, who became paralyzed from the waist down when a bully at school punched him when he was 12 years old. Sawyer, now 18, is in a wheelchair and just settled with the board of the New Jersey public school district for $4.2 million.

Admittedly, most individuals who are punched don’t become paralyzed — Sawyer apparently was the unfortunate victim of a freak medical event (a blood clot) — but Sawyer’s case illustrates how seriously dangerous bullying can be.

At least three months before his bully put him in a wheelchair Sawyer had informed his school’s administrators that he was being bullied, but even after Sawyer’s life-changing injury at the hands of his bully, msnbc.com reports,

The [New Jersey public school district's] board denied [in its settlement statement] allegations that it or its employees had “failed or compromised its responsibility to develop and to implement effective policies and procedures to protect the safety and rights” of the school community, … noting that the district “prides itself for the role which it has played in recognizing and developing an awareness of the dangers of bullying, intimidation and harassment in the school setting.”

Bullying can’t be addressed if school administrators, in order to save their own skins, won’t even fucking acknowledge it.

It’s our own collective fault, however, that brazenly incompetent and self-interested school administrators like these remain in power and that our schools don’t have more resources, such as adequate staffing to supervise students, to combat bullying.

And until school administrators and teachers stop saying that it’s the parents’ responsibility, and parents stop saying that it’s the schools’ responsibility, and school administrators stop saying that it’s law enforcement’s reponsibility, and law enforcement stops saying that it’s the schools’ responsibility – and all of us (even those of us without children of our own) take responsibility for the well-being of our young people — our public schools will continue to be more like prisons than like places of learning and personal growth.

My grade: B-

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Documentary ‘Bully’ flawed but spurs vital conversation

  1. don

    Wow. What a great review. my thoughts exactly.

  2. John Merzetti

    I am in the midst of watching “Bully” and when that useless-fuck-of-an-Assistant-Principal said she’d ridden the school bus and those kids were well behaved, I screamed at the TV, “You’re a fucking idiot!”

    Then, I turned to Google and found this blog. I have to vent!

    Seriously, why is this person in any role of responsibility? She’s a fucking moron!

    • Robert Crook

      Yes, for the assistant principal to deny the problem (specifically, of the violence on the school bus), even when there was a VIDEO clearly documenting the problem, was surreal, as was her attempt to make it all about HERSELF by whipping out the pictures of her grandchild. Sick, sick, sick. I’m glad to hear that she no longer is at that school, but my guess is that she’s now a problem at another school.

      • Matt

        This is exactly how I came to this site too. I’m watching the movie right now and couldn’t believe that this woman was allowed to work in a school. She is a complete moron. Forget having an education in the field, which I assume she has. It’s common sense that you don’t blame the person being bullied!

  3. John Merzetti

    I had to try to contact Kim Lockwood, but it seems that she had left that school. This is a good thing (for me as I likley would have said some things that I would regret) as well as the kids at that school.

    If you do want to contact the Principal or one of the two Assistant Principals at that school (as I did to vent a bit and also congratulate them on — seemingly — getting rid of her), they can be reached at erickc@live.siouxcityschools.com, bemusb@live.siouxcityschools.com and steelel@live.siouxcityschools.com.

  4. mathilde

    Here is my sad truth…that Vice Principal in the movie Bully is the RULE not the EXCEPTION! I have been an educator for 20 years and I don’t know why I have yet to meet an administrator who lives by common sense principles and personal integrity. I have however ,met many who are obsorbed with self-importance, motivated by the ego and driven by fear. You can not effectively teach or lead when you are motivated by your ego. An effective leader/educator is compassionate and driven by a passion to make a difference in education for all, knowing that a good education is the best thing you can give a child or a person. To do this you have to have a mission, be authentic, be compassionate, live by your principles and have integrity! Perhaps this is a tall order, but can we afford the alternative?

  5. Ben

    The Vice Principal is so stupid it is actually unbelievable. This film pretty much showed me just how inept most of the adults in these kids lives are, the principal and bus drivers clearly have no control whatsoever, the teachers are clueless, the parents are clueless, the kids are the will of the other kids around them, who do whatever they please and suffer no consequences.

  6. I have been an educator for over 30 years, so that makes me one of the baby boomers that you so eloquently denigrate. While I certain agree that the responses of all of the administrators in this movie are absolutely appalling, this has in no way been my experience. Maybe it’s because I live in the DC metro area where I hope there is a more enlightened and proactive approach to dealing with bullying. As a school counselor, I work every day to combat bullying, as do all of my colleagues. This movie is extremely powerful, however, the negative light that is shed upon educators by the few ignorant educators portrayed in this movie, does a disservice to the message.

    • Robert

      Not every baby boomer is awful, but overall, it’s an awful generation — the worst generation in U.S. history.

      Most of “Bully” was filmed in red states, so yes, one could assert that it doesn’t give a full picture of the subject of bullying in the U.S. public schools.

      And of course there are some educators who truly are doing their best to combat bullying. (If you are one of them, as you claim to be, thank you.) I fear that that is just a minority of educators, but, like “Bully,” that’s just anecdotal, and, again, as I stated in my review, we don’t give our educators enough support in taking on bullying. (We don’t give our educators enough support, period.)

  7. Helen Smith

    That assistant principal is why bullying is a problem. I am dumbfounded how a professional educator/administrator could be soooo woefully incompetent and ignorant. She is an enabler and should be sued for willful neglect. Just listening her responses, all of them, left both my husband and myself yelling at this moron on the tv! How this woman has a job in a school mind-bending.

  8. Jasmine

    If someone can please email me the email address of the assistant principal, I need to send her a long essay on how you look after children and protect them, being a victim of bullying I know she has FAILED dramatically at being a school principal because she doesn’t know the first fucking idea of how to prevent bullying. That woman has me fuming and I actually wish I lived in the US so I could meet with her face-to-face and tell her how much of a disgrace she is. A fucking worthless piece of shit woman she is.

  9. Ali

    Me and my gf were thinking the same
    The assistant principal pathetic…. And some of the parents shameful stick up for your kids and take action!

  10. I barely made it through high school and I would make a better ‘Assistant Principal’ than that woman. My god, I’ve never been more disgusted in an ‘educated qualified professional’.

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