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‘The Bully Project’ Finds Its Moment

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 23, 2011

Director Lee Hirsch started filming The Bully Project in 2009, about a year before bullying fully came of age as a high-profile crisis with the launch of what became the It Gets Better project. (That’s not to say that’s when bullying started, obviously — it’s when the current wave of popular media coverage swelled after several awful stories of suicides by bullied kids.)

What The Bully Project adds to the public conversation is an unflinching look at the stakes. At its center is the family of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old who had just recently hanged himself in a closet when filming started. It follows his anguished parents as they launch a community discussion of bullying in the wake of his death that it certainly appears the school doesn’t want to have (they organize a town hall meeting, and plenty of kids and parents show up, but nobody from the school or the district).

The film also follows Alex, a 14-year-old who can be funny and comfortable at home, but who has been so relentlessly brutalized at school (his special zone of torment seems to be the bus) that he walks around looking shell-shocked and a bit lost, which seems to isolate him even more.

There are other kids in the story: Kelby, a young lesbian from Oklahoma whose father explains that after she came out, people he’d known for years started refusing to acknowledge him on the street; Ja’meya, a 14-year-old whose very difficult path represents the dangers of and to bullied kids who get fed up and decide to fight back; and Ty Field-Smalley, whose suicide at 11 years old — 11 years old — drives his father, too, into activism.

At times, The Bully Project is a pretty grueling experience, but it probably wouldn’t be fair if it weren’t. And it isn’t only the bullying that’s frustrating: We see Alex’s parents try to take their concerns (which are amplified after the filmmakers conclude that they’re obligated to tell them what’s happening on the bus) to the school. There, they have a bizarre meeting with an administrator who gives them precisely the pacifying “we’ll take care of it” speech that many of the parents in the film say they hear all the time right before nothing happens.

Unfortunately, by that point in the film, we’ve already seen that same administrator intervene in what certainly smells like a bullying situation by forcing the two boys involved to shake hands and later telling the one who’s complaining of being bullied that if he doesn’t shake hands and make up and really mean it, he’s just as bad as the bully. (She really says this. It’s almost surreal.)

It gives you a sense of what these families feel like they’re up against, although in fairness, the schools are up against quite a lot themselves. There’s a point where a local official tells the Longs that it’s extraordinarily difficult for the school to single-handedly stop destructive behaviors by a kid whose parents are reinforcing those behaviors at home. To the Longs, it feels (very understandably) like blame-shifting and refusing to do anything, but I felt some sympathy for the school, too, because … it’s probably true.

There aren’t any suggestions of easy solutions in The Bully Project; it’s more about driving home the need for everybody to keep trying by just standing as a reminder of what’s at stake. Kelby’s father says at one point that he never understood the expression “you never know what someone’s been through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” until he had a gay child. The Bully Project can’t let you walk a mile in any of these people’s shoes, not by a longshot. But it can let you look at those shoes up close, maybe try them on. It’s not fun, but it’s well worth doing.

Note: The film has an online home at TheBullyProject.com, where there are extensive links to resources for kids and parents dealing with bullying and to the “grassroots movement” the film is intended to spur. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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