The recent release of "Bully" and the controversy over its initial "R" rating (it was eventually released "unrated") has sparked a national conversation over bullying in school. Putting aside the absurdity of the MPAA rating, I’d like to talk about the movie itself, and where we might go from here.
First, the movie is worth seeing. It is an excellent portrayal of what bullying looks like from the perspective of students. It also does a nice job of showing how clueless adults can be, adults within the school system in particular. You can imagine how frustrating that is to both affected students and parents.
It’s probably too much to ask, but where I think the movie falls short is in solutions, which don’t get much beyond insisting that the school, and the public at large, face up to the issue. While that’s a good start, it highlights the shortcomings of traditional anti-bullying efforts: they tend to be reactive, with the focus typically on changing the behavior of the “bully”. Not enough attention is paid to the behavior of the bystanders, nor on the overall climate of the school.
By contrast, a comprehensive “school climate” approach is pro-active. The emphasis is on developing a sense of community, including behavioral expectations, that make bullying less likely to occur in the first place. It is important that we address the random, casual disrespect that occurs in some school environments – places where bullying is likely to be taken for granted.
Parents have to recognize that their role is critical - a key part of which is to challenge this idea that bullying is an acceptable and unavoidable part of growing up. All that bullying accomplishes is to produce schools in which all of our children will find it harder to learn. Adults are also responsible for modeling the respect for others that we want our children to demonstrate. Bullying is a learned behavior; fortunately, so is respect.
But perhaps the most important component of developing a positive school climate is to allow the students to acquire a sense of ownership in their school. We need to move from the traditional student perception that school is something that is “done” to them to one in which students and teachers share the responsibility for their school environment.
That’s why it is so encouraging to hear that many of our high school students will be seeing the film in the coming weeks, following up with school-wide conversations, all initiated by the students, themselves. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a conversation that includes all of us.