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Should Middle Schoolers see 'Bully'? Reviewer: Yes

Reviewer says she will take her 11-year-old despite the language and content because of its important message.

The Movie "Bully" is showing in local theaters, and I am determined to find some time to take my 11-year-old and 15-year-old to see it.

The movie is also showing at the Claridge in Montclair at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. 

It’s been well received and by all accounts is an important film for families to see – despite the controversy over its initial R rating that was reduced to PG-13 after a national petition and uproar.

The movie even came up as a topic of conversation at the Millburn Board of Education meeting last Monday, when parents urged the board, administration, faculty, students and parents to go see it.

Some are curious as to whether it is appropriate for elementary school or middle school students, so I looked around Patch and found this review by Sharon Rowley, a mother of six in New City, New York, who also has a parenting blog at www.momof6.com, and who went to the movie when it opened last week before deciding to take her 11-year-old.

I thought this might be of some interest to those of you, who, like me, might be wondering if it will be OK for your children.

By Sharon Rowley for Patch:

On Friday, my husband and I headed out to the theaters while the kids were in school to attend a morning screening of “Bully,” the film made by Lee Hirsch that follows five families whose lives are irrevocably changed when their child becomes the victim of school bullies.

The movie follows two families who lost their sons (ages 17 and 11) to suicide because they just couldn’t take the bullying anymore. We meet a 14-year-old girl who is living in a juvenile detention facility while she waits for the courts to decide her fate, after brandishing a handgun on the school bus (that she found hidden in her mother’s closet) as a way to exert some power over her tormentors. We follow one school year in the life of 13-year-old Alex Libby, a painfully socially-awkward young man who is punched, hit, threatened, and called ugly names on the school bus and during the day at middle school. And we repeatedly watch all of the adults in his life fail to help him- his parents, the bus driver, the assistant principal and even the guidance counselor.

It is so heart-breaking to witness.

I wanted to share my thoughts on the film here, perhaps as way to help you decide whether or not to take your own middle-school aged children to see this movie. The topics do indeed seem to be very grown-up (frankly I don’t know if I was really ready to explain to my son that some kids find things so hopeless that they decide to take their own life). The language is harsh, the physical abuse is very hard to watch, and the cold reality that the trusted adults that these kids rely on offer them no solution or help to protect them from continued bullying is almost unfathomable. But the bottom line is that I want my kids to really understand what bullying can look like (at least in some of its forms, cyber-bullying is notably absent from the movie), and start to have some family discussions of what it means to be a bystander vs. someone who stands up for the victim. So here is what I took away from the movie…

“Bully” is Great for Creating Awareness of the Problem

Before we can ever start talking about solutions, we all have to agree that there is a problem, right? And “Bully” definitely does a great job of demonstrating exactly what bullying can look like, how the victim feels so helpless to handle the situation, how resources that should be in place in schools are not necessarily equipped to handle bullying, and how parents can be completely unaware of how horrible a bullied child’s life can be.

For 13-year-old Alex Libby, we see how his parents feel that they are “touching base” with their son as they ask him how things are going on the school bus, and you can see that Alex doesn’t even want to answer them. He seems to be ashamed that this is happening to him, and his father reinforces that by telling Alex that he needs to stand up to the bullies, because “your sister will be starting middle school with you next year, and you wouldn’t want this to happen to her, right?”. When the fillmakers feel that the bus situation has become dangerous for Alex, they decide that they need to step in and alert Alex’s parents and school officials to what they have witnessed and captured on film. And after seeing it, Alex’s mother is just shocked. She doesn’t understand how “his friends” can treat him this way. Clearly, she doesn’t even know how to process this information, let alone how to get her son some help.

"Bully" Shows How Much Parents and Schools Need to be Educated

Alex’s parents aren’t terrible parents, they just aren’t equipped with the right tools and education on how to handle bullying. And neither was Alex’s school. The assistant principal was shown making mis-step after mistake…. dismissing kids concerns when they said they were being hit, asking a bully and his victim to shake hands to “make up” and then chiding the victim when he refused to shake the bully’s hand and telling the victim that “he has just as bad as the bully” when he wouldn’t meet him half-way. She alternately agreed with Alex’s parents that the school bus was a problem, and defended the behavior on the bus saying the kids were “as good as gold.” As frustrated as I was with this assistant principal (I had to refrain from yelling at the screen once or twice), I truly felt that she wasn’t a bad person… she had just never received any sort of training of how to handle bullying… and she just didn’t know what to say or do.

And while the film shares with the audience one of the advocacy groups created by the parents of one of the children who committed suicide (“Stand For The Silent“), it really does not tell us what we should do as parents to help our own children wherever they fall in the bully circle- the victim, the bystander, or even the bully. It doesn’t tell us how to talk to our schools about putting into place a bullying prevention program… or even what a good bullying prevention program does. But I found a site that is a good place to start… the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program which goes into schools and trains teachers and staff on how to recognize and intervene in bullying behaviors. I sincerely hope that Alex’s school has made some efforts here since the film has been made.

We Need to Teach Acceptance in Schools

The fifth student followed in the film, was Kelby, a 16-year-old girl who recently told her parents and her community that she is a lesbian. This revelation did not go over well in her small hometown in Oklahoma. And I think her mother expressed it best (and I am paraphrasing from memory here) when she said that she had been "raised a certain way," believing that this way of life was "against God," but that when it is your daughter… all of that way of thinking just changes. Because it is no longer just a belief… "it is personal.”

But isn’t that true of differences in general?

People for many reasons, believe that being different is wrong or bad… but when met with an issue of difference in their own family- with their own child…. well, now they can understand what it is like to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and all of the sudden that entire belief-structure changes (well hopefully- a guess a worse scenario is when the parent’s belief structure doesn’t change).

But this is not true for the bully- who likes to make fun of and challenge differences. Kelby was “different,” Alex, sweet and awkward was “different.” And that’s why I feel very strongly that any anti-bullying campaign in schools should be run hand-in-hand with an educational component that talks about acceptance of differences (not “tolerance”…. I really don’t like that word because it implies “putting up with”… I am talking about true acceptance).

So I am going to give the “Bully” film a Momof6 rating of 5 (out of 6 stars) because the film did fall a bit short on the educational aspect that is so important. I do plan on taking my 11-year-old son to see the movie, and I also plan on purchasing the film when it is released on DVD so that all of my kids can watch it when they enter the middle-school years too. I think this will be important to watch and discuss many times as my kids grow up.

Patch Local Editor Laura Griffin covers Millburn and Short Hills for Millburn-Short Hills Patch. 

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