How To Stop a Bully
Even as the Harvey Weinstein-produced film Bully falls flat, Jewish schools are trying new programs that do more than simply raise awareness
The documentary Bully opened nationwide on Friday. Critics raved. But while its intentions are good, Bully is a lousy movie.
First off, it’s torture porn. The movie revels in scenes of violence: a kid getting punched in the head and stabbed with a pencil, a parent tearfully telling the camera about finding her child hanging lifeless in a closet, a bullied girl caught in grainy camera footage aiming her mother’s gun at her fellow school-bus riders. You’d never know from watching the film that experts agree that physical bullying is by far the least common form of bullying.
But the real problem is that the film, produced by Harvey Weinstein, offers no solutions. Oh, sure, there are homilies like “be the change” and a final montage—set to the inevitable swelling music—of candlelit vigils where kids pledge their anti-bullying fealty (I’m sorry, is anyone actually pro-bullying?) and release environmentally unfriendly balloons in memory of kids who’ve committed suicide. But as my own 10-year-old observed, “This is like those breast cancer people who say they’re raising awareness … but how is that doing anything to fix the problem?”
Bullying is a wildly trendy topic right now, and the efforts to “raise awareness” are nearly as pervasive as breast cancer’s pink ribbons. Ninety-two anti-bullying books were published in 2011 (not including specialized-education titles); 35 have come out in 2012 so far. And that doesn’t even account for the apps, gadgets, websites, and musical theater productions on the subject. Bully feels like just another part of this zeitgeist-y trend—a somber, self-important, self-promoting tone standing in for real commitment to the difficult work of edification. The reductive nature of the movie is embodied by the cartoon villain of a school administrator, a vile, clueless, smirking, smarmy idiot who tells parents she can’t guarantee their son’s safety on the bus, then assures them that the victimizers “are just as good as gold.” The film is all black-and-white, heroes and villains, It Gets Better-style platitudes … and no information whatsoever on how to make it better.
But there are ways to make it better, even if the movie opts not to discuss them. Researchers and educators who focus on bullying in schools have devised programs to tackle the problem, and certain approaches really do seem to make a difference. They work for schools—not just poor, isolated, rural schools like the ones in the movie, but upper-middle-class schools, and Jewish day schools, too.
To be fair to Bully director Lee Hirsch, doing the real making-it-better work is hard. Rona Novick, director of the doctoral program at the Azrieli School of Education at Yeshiva University and a clinical psychologist who co-developed the BRAVE bullying-prevention program, told me: “Here’s the humbling fact: The most demonstrably powerful program was instituted in Norway and achieved a 50 percent reduction in bullying. No other program has come close to that. The good programs in the U.S. get about a 20 to 30 percent reduction in bullying.”
Part of the problem, experts say, is that we throw anti-bullying rhetoric and policies (and pledges and statues and rallies) around like confetti, but we don’t address the larger cultural issues that allow bullying to take root. “We struggle in this country to get social and emotional learning the same attention, time, and effort as academics,” Novick said. “And there’s social exclusion and bullying among adults, so to expect that kids will be better at this than grown-ups are is downright foolish.”
The movie, with its endless shots of waving fields of wheat, smoke-spewing factories, and desolate railroad tracks, makes bullying look like a backwoods poor-people problem, like bad teeth. In reality, of course, bullying is everywhere, and in fact, wealthier urban and suburban private schools are, in some ways, less equipped to handle it.
“Public school by its nature can propose that it is democratic,” Novick pointed out. “Everyone is a taxpayer. But in private schools and Jewish day schools, you have to ask, ‘Are we really effective at conveying that every person here has equal value?’ Do kids at the school say, ‘You can’t do anything to me; my daddy’s name is on this building!’ Does the rabbi’s kid get in trouble? You can have massive imbalances of power.”
True that. But for my daughter and me, the biggest flaw in the movie was that it turns bullies into The Other. (In fact, the film doesn’t talk to any; they’re faceless, invisible monsters.) Real life is subtler; kids know that bullies can be popular and charming. And experts know that the roles of bully and victim can be fluid. “The movie’s exposé format oversimplifies a complicated problem,” said Yoni Schwab, an expert on fostering positive social-emotional and character development in children, a consultant to Parents magazine, and a psychologist in private practice and at the Windward School. “Many bullies are also victimized. It’s a cycle. You get bullied in 6th grade, and then when you’re in 8th grade, you bully the 6th graders.” (Or, as my daughter Josie put it, “Maybe the bully is being beaten up by his big brother. Or maybe he feels like he doesn’t have any power. You have to think about why people are bullies to be able to help them stop.”)
Demonizing bullies is dangerous on a number of levels. (And here’s where I’ll civilly say that I disagree with my esteemed colleague Liel Leibovitz: The aim of social and emotional learning is not to make kids “preternaturally nice”; all bullies are not irredeemable; bullies aren’t exclusively hitters, and hitting back isn’t always the answer.) Pledges and zero-tolerance policies, wherein we ban the bully from our midst like a goat sent into the wilderness, sound great but do more harm than good. They let us pass the buck without helping the bully change. “Saying we have zero tolerance for bullies makes no sense, any more than saying we have zero tolerance for non-readers makes sense,” Novick said. “Illiteracy is an educational opportunity, and so is bullying. No assembly, movie, or mandate will make kids into readers; what makes kids into readers is the long, hard, and rewarding process of education. And that’s what will make schools bully-resistant: teaching values and the value of human beings, teaching the skills of social discourse and disagreement.” (Besides, there’s zero evidence that zero-tolerance policies are a deterrent.)
So, what can we do to stop bullying? We have to focus on the whole school culture. “Ultimately, the direction of the field isn’t in addressing bullying per se, but to look at the framework of a school in terms of their entire social and emotional learning program,” or SEL, Schwab said. “Just as you teach math and reading, step by step and through review, you need to be doing the same thing for social and emotional skills in school. SEL is a mandated part of the curriculum in about 20 states. And research indicates that not only do kids behave better and grow up more secure and healthy, but they end up achieving better.” Novick concurred: “There’s compelling data that the schools who do this well offer lifelong benefits. The kids are less likely to have truancy issues, to abuse drugs, to make high-risk choices in high school. They’re more upstanding citizens throughout their lives.”
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