If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Hillel)
Today my husband and I took our girls to a screening of Bully. The screening was sponsored by BBYO (B'nai B'rith Youth Organization), several area synagogues (including our own Temple Beth Tikvah) and other local Jewish organizations. As I sit here trying to write this post, I am feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the film. It was a difficult movie to watch and I cried my way through most of it. But, as I told my girls, there are things in life that you must look at, hard as they are to see. You must open your eyes so you can bear witness, so you can understand, so you can learn and so you can respond. This is one of those times. And this was one of those movies.
Following the movie there was a brief discussion led by a facilitator from The Rainbow Center. Many of us left the theatre with our eyes red, our hearts heavy, feeling emotionally exhausted from what we had just seen. Our family continued the conversation in the car ride and as we sat around the dinner table. We shared our feelings about what we had witnessed and talked about ways that we can make a difference in the lives of others. We went through each of the stories featured in the film and talked about what could have been done differently. What could the schools have done? What could students have done? And what could parents have done? These are not easy conversations for a 13, 12 and 9-year-old girl to have. But they are important conversations and these days, they might even help to save a life. My husband and I asked more pointed questions about what our children are seeing and experiencing in school, and what their peers may be contending with as well.
Bullying is not really the right term for the horrors we witnessed in this film. Emotional abuse, physical assault, psychological torment... these are words that are far more accurate in describing what the children featured in the film, and what 13 million children a year in our country, experience on a daily basis. Three million children are absent each month because they feel unsafe at school.
According to Autism Speaks, "It has been suggested that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are especially vulnerable to bullying. The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) is now sharing initial results of a national survey on the bullying experiences of children on the autism spectrum. The findings show that children with ASD are bullied at a very high rate, and are also often intentionally 'triggered' into meltdowns or aggressive outbursts by ill-intentioned peers. The study found that a total of 63 percent of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, had been bullied at some point in their lives. http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/bullying"
So, in light of those statistics, here's what I want to know? Why do we continue to define a School of Excellence by scores on a standardized test? Why do we assume that if a school can demonstrate high-test scores that no child is being left behind? In this film we were reminded in the most heartbreaking ways, that our schools are failing those students who are being victimized. School officials continue to turn a blind eye, saying kids will be kids. They belittle and ignore the cries of parents and children who come to them in the hopes of making things better. They throw their hands in the air and saying there is nothing they can do. Let's be honest, any school can stick a sign on the wall and define themselves as a Bully Free Zone, but a sign does not make it so. In one sickening scene the school assistant principal forces a bullying victim to shake hands with the boy who has been tormenting him. When he initially refuses to do so, she then tells the victim that his actions make him just the same as the bully. After all, the bully was offering an apology and his victim turned him away. Is this what it's come to? And this same assistant principal later responds to the concerned parents of another bullying victim by telling them that "School buses are notoriously bad places for lots of kids." In other words, the torment your child is suffering is simply a rite of passage, deal with it, accept it, it's just the way it is. I can only hope that when the national spotlight reflects back upon this school, they will be shamed into doing something more.
Here's how I would define a School of Excellence. It would be a place where children are consistently taught to respect their classmates, teachers and peers. It would be place where children feel safe to come and learn each and every day. It would be a place that puts a greater value on the humanity and dignity of the children they are educating, than on standardized test scores. It would be a place where students who degrade, dehumanize and victimize others face serious and immediate consequences. It would be a place that promotes and supports programs that teach about diversity not just one or two months out of the year, but as a core piece of their year-long curriculum. It would be a place that creates a culture of caring, compassion, kindness, acceptance and inclusion. It would be a place where character education matters just as much as academic education. Because I will tell you this. I want my children to get good grades, to do their best and to work hard in school. But more than that, I want them to be good people.
And as we left the movie today, I thought about the questions that so many of us ask our children at the end of their school day. We ask: How was your day? How did you do on that test or project? What did you learn? But, this film makes clear that it is no longer enough to ask those questions. We must go further. Children who are being victimized often don't tell a parent what is going on until it is too late. They suffer in silence too embarrassed or afraid to tell. Perhaps they hope that it will simply pass or they believe they can handle it on their own. But they are just children and these are burdens too great for them to bear without us. And so, perhaps we must ask our children:
What kind of human being were you today? Did you show kindness to another person? Were you a good and supportive friend? Were people kind to you? Did anybody do or say something today that upset you? How did that make you feel? How can I help you with that? Are you seeing other children at your school being left out, picked on or ostracized? How can you reach out to those people? How can you make a difference? Perhaps we need to ask them not only what they want to be when the grow up, but who they want to be right now?
We need to remind our children on a daily basis that they matter. We must tell them they are important. They need to know that we are their safe place. They can talk to us. I tell my children that often, but they cannot hear it enough. They need to believe and trust in us to do everything that is within our power to help them, support them, guide them, fight for them and to ensure that they can live their days free of fear and abuse. We need to remind them that there is always hope that things can get better. So that suicide, or brandishing a gun does not become the only way out they can see.
I believe this is one of the most important documentaries of our time. People have asked me to tell them whether I think it is appropriate for their children. That is not a call I can make. My husband had reservations about taking our youngest, who is only 9. But given the things she is exposed to on TV and the conversations we have had around shows like Glee, I felt that it was important that she come. And I am so glad that she did. The film was disturbing, but not overtly graphic. The conversation our family had following the movie was not an easy one. And it is a conversation that will continue. But I want my girls to understand what bullying really is. I want them to recognize it and the toll it can take on someone's life. I want them to feel empowered to stand up for themselves & for others. And lest we believe that this is only happening in other places, other schools or to other people's children... it was evident by the stories shared after the movie, that it is happening everywhere, in our own backyards, schools, playgrounds and on the buses our children ride each day. Several audience members who live here in metro Atlanta are now homeschooling their children as a result of bullying and complacency on the part of the schools. So the bullies remain seated at their desk and the victims are forced to learn from home. When did this become an acceptable model of learning?
The film ended with these powerful words, "Everything starts with one." Each of us can be that one. My children can be that one friend, an administrator can be that one safe person who acts on a child's behalf. A school bus driver can be that one who stops the bus, reports the abusers and ensures that the bus is a safe place to be. A parent can be that one voice who speaks up, stands up and fights for their child. And soon enough one voice, becomes two and two becomes more and before you know it a chorus of voices will come together & bring transformative change. But, everything starts with one... and so, we must start.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. (Aristotle)
To learn more about the film visit http://thebullyproject.com/
And visit StandfortheSilent.org an organization started by Kirk and Laura Smalley, following the suicide of their 11-year-old son.