Blog: The Educated Reporter

NEA and AFT Go to the Movies with ‘Bully’

The tear-jerking event was hosted by the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and featured labor leaders, the film’s director Lee Hirsch, and Jackie Libby, mother of one of bullied children in the documentary Bully. (Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn)

“I just wanted her to say ‘Sorry’,” Jackie Libby said to the crowd after a screening of the emotionally charged documentary “Bully,” which is set to arrive in theaters April 13.

Libby—whose son Alex is shown in the film enduring pencil stabbings, punches, and choking from his peers on school bus rides—is still unsatisfied with how her child’s vice principal, Kim Lockwood, addressed her son’s abuse. Alex is depicted as an earnest eighth grader, who is close to his four siblings and with poignant self-reflection (“People think I’m different, that I’m not normal,” he says at one point during the film).

“If you take that time off of work to be there, you want to be heard,” Libby voiced this week, roughly two years after she met with Lockwood at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa.

There was arguably no greater villain in the minds of the 450 people in attendance at the screening held in Washington, D.C., than that vice principal, whose lack of reproach for Alex’s tormentors was one of the most provocative aspects of the film.  At one point in the documentary,upon hearing about the attacks on Alex, Lockwood tells Libby that she has been on that bus before, and the students it transports “are just as good as gold.” Alex is eventually moved to another bus “because he couldn’t make the other kids…like him,” his mother said after the screening.

The tear-jerking event was hosted by the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and featured labor leaders, the film’s director Lee Hirsch, Libby and others. It was a prominent gathering centered on a film about education that tugs on the heart strings without throwing teacher groups under the bus like many educators said last year’s polarizing education documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” did.

AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a brief interview with EWA that excusing bulling with the idea “children will be children” is something “we need to thoughtfully and deliberately debunk.”  

She added that “schools have much more of a role to play” today in curbing bullying, observing that the influence of neighborhood programs like foundations and religious groups have receded in recent years, creating a vacuum where students used to have more guidance.

It is also one of her stated reasons for supporting the film. “I think we have to make these kind of issues real for people. It’s okay to be out; it’s okay to be different,” she told the audience after the screening.

U.S. Department of Education figures show the rate of bullying reported by students has increased dramatically, from 7 percent in 2003 to over 30 percent in 2007—the most recent year for such data. And while it is unclear whether bullied students are reporting their abuse in greater numbers or if more of them are becoming victims, the ways in which bullying occurs have evolved.

NEA president Dennis Van Roekel told EWA that harassment through email and texting expand the social challenges students face. Younger children also are using social media sites: Mashable reports that nearly 40 percent of children on the popular website are under the age of 12. And a poll of parents by MinorMonitor, a group that researches the effects of media on children, finds that 30 percent of them fear their children have been cyberbullied. A 2010 study from University of Arizona estimates 20 to 40 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 have beencyber-bullied.

But Van Roekel is uncertain if the number of children targeted by bullies has increased. “Those who were ‘teased’ in earlier decades might call it bullying today,” he said. “I don’t know if it was worse or better. It does not matter. It needs to stop.”

NEA has launched a new campaign “Bully Free: It Starts With Me” that encourages adults to act as leaders in preventing bullying. Hirsch has partnered with the nation’s largest school bus company, First Student, for a plan to transport one million students to see the film in theaters. The company says it already has trained nearly 60,000 drivers in how to identify and prevent bullying through a six-week course.

Several audience members asked the panel why school leaders didn’t do more to help the children in the film who were bullied. A lack of school resources to hire counselors and school psychologists, limited communication between parents and the administration, and a school’s desire to avoid controversy were all broached.

But for Alex’s mother, the takeaway was simpler: “Apparently, common sense was what was lost.”