By Dennis Van Roekel, President, National Education Association (NEA)
Your 14-year old son is being tormented by bullies at school and on the school bus. Every day he seems more withdrawn, every day it's harder to get him to go to school.
So you go to the school and talk to an assistant principal. You tell her about the bullying. She tries to reassure you — "We're taking care of it." It occurs to you after the meeting that this person sees you as the squeaky wheel to which oil must be applied.
The bullying persists. You return to the school several more times, talking with whomever is available, and again you hear — "We're taking care of it."
Your son grows more silent, more depressed. You question him — the bullying hasn't stopped. You are afraid he might commit suicide like some other bullied children have done. You are desperate. Fortunately, you find some help for your son outside of the school.
This is one of the true stories told in the new documentary movie, "Bully." The boy's name is Alex and his mother, Jackie Libby, has become a passionate advocate for bullying prevention and for public school employees getting the support and training they need to prevent bullying.
"Bully" gives a voice and a face to bullied students by following three of them — Alex, Kelby, and Ja'Meya — and it tells us about two other children, Ty and Tyler, who were bullied so relentlessly that they committed suicide. I've never seen a film like it. Director Lee Hirsch intended for us to feel what it is like to be a child who is bullied — and he succeeded. He also shows us the adults in these children's lives and their sometimes confused and fumbling responses to bullying.
Here's the thing — despite 48 states now having passed bullying prevention laws, despite a mountain of research documenting the negative impact of bullying on students' health and education, despite intensive media coverage of bullied students' suicides, the myth that bullying is a harmless rite of passage persists.
No one who sees "Bully" will ever believe that myth again. This movie should be shown to every school board and in every middle and high school across America. Every school administrator and every school employee who comes in contact with students should see "Bully." NEA is urging its members to see the movie. Already showing in New York City and Los Angeles, "Bully" opens in more than 45 other cities across the nation on April 13.
What is so very frustrating for educators and researchers who have dug deeply into the issue of bullying is that it is a preventable problem. The tragic suicides of Ty Smalley or Tyler Long could have been prevented. Adults — school employees and students' families — ultimately determine the amount of bullying that occurs in any given school, they create the climate, and working together, the adults can eliminate bullying from the school.
NEA's research shows that public school teachers and education support professionals are ready to act, but many of them lack training in the most effective, research-proven measures to take to prevent bullying. It is the responsibility of school districts, with support from their states, to provide this training — and not only to administrators and teachers, but to the wide array of adults who come into contact with students at school: bus drivers, front office staff, custodians, librarians, and food service workers.
Human connection is the key to bullying prevention. This principle is the foundation of Bully Free: It Starts with Me — NEA's campaign to equip caring adults in students' lives to stand up, and cease being bystanders.
Any effort to create a safe learning environment for all students in a school must start with the adults having a serious conversation, and the movie "Bully" is an excellent conversation starter. This will be a hard one if it is an honest one, especially if downplaying the importance of bullying — "kids will be kids" — is embedded in the culture of a school or school district.
Equally hard will be the action steps necessary to eliminate bullying. They will require relationship building and learning new behaviors. Just because the experts say that the problem is "solvable" doesn't mean solving it will be easy.
But preventing bullying will be far easier than having to deal with another precious child committing suicide because he or she was mercilessly bullied while adults went about their everyday routines.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.