'Bully' fights back: Hard-hitting film looks at impacts of being tormented

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Taken together, these baseline measurements mean that during every day of 2012 more than 35,000 children join the ranks of the bullied by being dissed, defamed or assaulted.

Experts say bullying is a favored tool of adolescents and teens looking to dictate a social pecking order. Lori Jones, the counseling and guidance coordinator for Canyons School District in Utah, possesses unique insight into why bullying is so brutally effective among teenagers after having spent more than 20 years in schools as a teacher, counselor and administrator.

"Adolescents and teenagers are going through rapid developmental changes," Jones said. "They're not very secure with themselves; they don't always know who they are. So they take (bullying) words very, very personally. They don't always know how to say, 'Oh, that person must be insecure,' the way an adult would. … They think, 'How come me? How come I don't fit in?'"

Bullying is a particularly hard problem for authority figures to quell because of its complexity and tendency to defy logic. For instance, punishment alone will not deter offenders because, as University of Rochester bullying expert Katy Allen points out, aggressively disciplining bullies can actually exacerbate the bad behavior.

"Punishment confirms what bullies believe to be true: that it's good to have power, and it's OK to us it to hurt others," Allen said. "Punishing the bully often has the effect of ramping up the bullying while sending it further underground so that it is even more difficult to monitor.

"(Instead) we need to do a variety of things, and one of them is to shift power away from the bully and into the hands of bystanders — which includes adults and students."

Exhorting bystanders to step in and stop abusive behavior, though, is not without its pitfalls. "Done poorly, bystander intervention can make bystanders the next victims," Allen observed.

In purely practical terms, Jones shared some suggestions for practical things parents can do to curb bully behavior:

Keep kids off the Internet late at night when cyber-bullying runs rampant.

Help children discover their strengths, and build on those.

Listen to your children when they talk about their problems.

Brainstorm with your children about solutions to end the bullying.

If game-planning doesn't beat the bully, contact school administrators.

Additionally, Allen also had some practical pointers for parents who must confront bullying:

Be a good listener, ask sensitive and thoughtful questions, and don't be over-reactive — because kids shut down as soon as parents overreact.

If bullying involves social media, encourage your child to take a breather from the cell phone and computer to let the dust settle and think about what's next.

Use the same Internet tools that your child uses, e.g. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Changing the world

To make "Bully," Hirsch embedded himself in the Sioux City (Iowa) School District throughout the 2009-2010 school year. The film's most compelling footage comes from what goes on inside Sioux City schools — including the epithet-laced bullying that Alex regularly experienced.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie comes on the school bus when, in an expletive-filled rant, another seventh grader tells Alex that he will "end" him.

This scene largely lead to "Bully" receiving an R- rating. The filmmakers faced a difficult choice: they could censor out the swear words to get a PG-13 rating, and hopefully reach more of the audience the film was intended for, or they could leave the language unchanged to accurately depicting what kids like Alex face every day.

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