Alex Libby hated getting on the school bus.
The second he sat down, the tormenting began. Kids stabbed him with pencils, slammed his head against the seat or window, and called him vile names.
As a gawky and shy 12-year-old, Alex wanted more than anything to fit in. And so he endured the daily ritual of bullying. He even defended his tormenters to his mom, telling him that they were just messing around.
"If not for them, what friends do I have?" he asked his mother.
Alex's story in Sioux City, Iowa, would hardly be remarkable in most American schools — and likely never would have been told if not for Emmy-winning director Lee Hirsch. Hirsch set out in 2009 to tell the story of five young lives that had fallen prey to bullying, three still living, and two who had already succumbed to suicide — including one boy who was just 11 years old.
The result of Hirsh's work is "Bully," a hard-hitting documentary that hits theaters nationwide on April 13. The release of the film comes at a time when the subject of bullying is being re-examined. Long viewed as a harmless rite of passage, bullying is now being redefined as a social problem, and a new movement to address bullying and the long-term problems its victims face is gaining steam across the country.
Whether it was Alex's gangly gait or unkempt mop of sandy brown hair or the way his white-sock-and-shorts combo looked on his skinny legs, he proved irresistible to bullies, who just couldn't leave him alone — even when Hirsch was nearby with video camera in hand.
Alex may have stuck up for his bullies to his mother, but in a private moment with Hirsch on camera, the boy explained how he really felt.
"I get nervous getting on the bus," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I like learning, but I have trouble with making friends … They punch me, strangle me, take things from me, sit on me."
As Hirsch's documentary shows, the long term impacts of bullying — and even the immediate social scarring — are often hidden from teachers, bullies themselves and even parents. And while there's no way to sanitize how bad bullying is for millions kids every year in the U.S., the good news is that there are things that can be done to alleviate the epidemic.
Roiling ratings controversy
"Bully" has ignited a firestorm of attention, but not because of its subject matter. Unlike most movies — for which obtaining a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America is a mere formality to be endured prior to red-carpet premieres and theatrical release — things only started to get interesting for "Bully" once it became rated R.
In February the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, appealed the R-rating to the MPAA in large part because Hirsch and his fellow producers wanted middle school and high school students to be able to see "Bully." By a single vote, the appeal failed to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary to overturn an existing rating.
When Katy Butler, a 17-year-old Michigan high school student, got wind of the failed appeal, she launched an online petition asking the MPAA to change its rating for "Bully" from R to PG-13 so that as many kids as possible could see the film — perhaps even in their schools. In less than a month, nearly 500,000 people signed Butler's petition via the website Change.Org.
Bullying: a brutal reality
The government-run StopBullying.gov defines three main kinds of bullying: verbal (teasing and taunting), social (e.g. spreading false and harmful rumors about another person) and physical (hitting-kicking-biting-pinching, et al). StopBullying.gov also reports that 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, 13 million kids will be bullied in the United States this year.
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.
"The sad joke of this ruling is that the children depicted in 'Bully' already live in a world rated R — for the physical and psychic violence they suffer, and for the vicious language directed at them," film critic Richard Corliss recently wrote for Time magazine.
As disturbing as some of the language in Bully is — most of it is confined to that one bus scene involving Alex — the movie's retrospective look at the two relatively recent suicides is even worse. Ty Smalley, 11, and Tyler Long, 17, both killed themselves after years of degrading bullying.
Tyler's father David said his son wasn't the most athletic of boys in his Georgia high school, and was always the last to be chosen. "Nobody would be on his team because they said he was a geek and a fag and they didn't want to play with him," David Long says in the film. "And it took a toll on him early in middle school to where he cried — and then it got to the point where he didn't cry anymore."
In search of solutions, the parents of 11-year-old Ty Smalley have started an anti-bullying organization, Stand for the Silent, and have coordinated a series of vigils for bullying victims.
At a Stand for the Silent rally in "Bully," Ty's father, Kirk Smalley, exhorts the crowd to "go out there and find that one child, that new kid, who just moved to town, standing over there by himself. Be his friend, smile, be willing to help him out when he's pushed down, (and) be willing to stand up for him.
"If we all do it together, we will change the world."
Indeed, the underlying theme of "Bully" centers on the fact that everyone can — and should — make a difference to stop bullying. To that end, the film encourages students to "stand up, not stand by" when they see someone being picked on.
"The message of encouraging kids to 'stand up to bullies and not stand by' ultimately reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference when it comes to the issue of bullying," Stanford professor and Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer said. "And this issue is not going away."
What you can do
Be advised that "Bully" deals with sensitive subject matter such as teen suicide, and includes coarse language (especially at the beginning of the film). Depending on the preference of the movie theater in your area showing "Bully," the film may bear an R-rating or, as the result of a last-minute agreement between the MPAA and the Weinstein Company, be advertised as "unrated." Common Sense Media suggests that kids under 13 probably shouldn't go and that those who do should go with their parents.
"The movie deals with really tough issues," Steyer said. "It can be heartbreaking, because it deals with very heavy conflicts like suicide — in fact that was the most difficult thing for me as a person. And it doesn't paint a great picture of how schools are handling this issue. But the truth is, this is reality for younger teens today."
Despite the subject matter and language, Common Sense Media calls the documentary "critically important." Steyer's organization offers several suggestions of ways for parents to talk with their kids about the subject of bullying, even if they deem the movie inappropriate to watch because of language:
Families can talk about ways kids can stand up instead of standing by, and how one person can make a difference by doing so.
Parents can talk to their kids about teen suicide and where kids in despair can turn for help.
While bullying is often physical, sometimes words hurt just as much. Parents can talk with their children about the different forms of bullying and what has the most lasting impact.
While "Bully" doesn't talk much about cyberbullying, Common Sense Media suggests parents talk to their kids about how this issue impacts them and their peers.
If kids feel they are being ignored by administrators, talk to them about where else can they turn for help.
As upsetting as "Bully" is, in the end it's a story of empowerment and triumph. And nobody embodies that fact more than Alex Libby.
On Feb. 23 at the appeal hearing to appeal the MPAA's R-rating of "Bully," Alex came to address the panel. Now three years older than the boy the film shows bullies tormenting, Alex exuded all kinds of confidence sitting at the 20-foot conference table in his royal-blue button-down shirt and black checkered tie.
A month later when the Libby family appeared together on CNN, Alex updated Anderson Cooper on where life finds him now.
"Life's pretty good. I have good grades, tons of friends and my school is amazing."