My View:  Use 'Bully' to transform schools
April 13th, 2012
06:14 AM ET

My View: Use 'Bully' to transform schools

Courtesy Marilyn MargonBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

“Bully”, the new film that opens today in theaters across the country, begins with the image of a heavy-diapered toddler named Tyler, happily staggering across the wet grass in front of his family’s Georgia home.

Moments later, we learn of Tyler’s painful path in the adolescent years that followed - years that were marked by relentless bullying and abuse at school, and years that culminated with his decision to hang himself, in a closet in his family’s home, at the age of 17.

“Bully” is a must-see film because it makes visible one of the most painful, universally kept secrets of our society and our schools: Every one of us has been bullied, and every one of us has bullied someone else.

To underscore this uncomfortable truth, director Lee Hirsch takes us on a visual tour of the most emotionally charged symbols of childhood - yellow school buses, rows of lockers, recess playgrounds - to remind us what can happen there, and what costs we accrue when we characterize the serial cruelty of children as little more than a regrettable “rite of passage.” We hear one boy’s breath quicken as he approaches the bus stop on the first day of school, certain of the abusive treatment that will resume at his expense. We visit a girl in juvenile detention, so desperate to stop a gang of students from berating her daily that she stole her mother’s gun to send a message, once and for all, that she wasn’t going to take it anymore. And we learn about the family whose daughter’s decision to come out as a lesbian resulted in their collective ostracism from the daily lives of their former friends and neighbors.

As powerful as these stories are, they are symptoms, not root causes, of why so many of us are so unkind to each other. Simply put, no one bullies from a position of emotional strength, and too few of our schools are explicitly organized to ensure that children acquire the most valuable gift of all: the ability to feel visible in the world, and the skills and self-confidence they need to be seen and heard - in school and in life - in meaningful, responsible ways.

To catalyze the energy and interest this film will spark, we must not believe our work is done when we wear blue bracelets or enact anti-bullying policies. Instead, we must begin the deeper work of ensuring that every learning environment inAmericais proactively constructed to meet the intellectual, social and emotional needs of its students. And we must evaluate ourselves against that lofty benchmark before all else.

The good news is the recipes for these sorts of environments are all around us. Consider, for example, the Mission Hill School in Boston, a fabulous public school in which young people are encouraged daily to imagine - and empathize with - the viewpoints of others. Consider the overwhelming research suggesting that school climate is the central determining factor for everything from personal safety to intellectual growth. And witness the wealth of evidence-based programs that already exist to help young people develop the strong social and emotional foundation they’ll need to serve as upstanding playmates, students and citizens.

In other words, we don’t lack the know-how to create more supportive learning environments; we lack the collective clarity and will.

Imagine a society in which our sole measures for determining a school’s health weren’t just reading and math scores.  Imagine a national commitment to ensure that all educators acquired the training and expertise they need to create safe environments for children -  the very expertise that was so sorely absent from the toolboxes of many educators in this film.  And imagine a cultural sea change in which we replaced our historic willingness to accept the tractor-beam pull for conformity with a widely shared (and practiced) value that our differences are what make us more, not less, precious to each other.

That’s the sort of response this film deserves. And that’s the best way all of us can honor the memories of young people like Tyler and ensure that their suffering, and our own, was not in vain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Chaltain.

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Filed under: Bullying • Voices
soundoff (265 Responses)
  1. Sara Potler

    The more we can collectively validate the need for increased social and emotional skills in our young people and in each other, the safer our learning environments, workplaces and homes. I am the Founder of Dance 4 Peace (, a global peace education nonprofit using dance to promote empathetic behavior and reduce violence, conflict and bullying in schools and community centers. We have worked with over 4,700 youth in 8 cities on 4 continents since I authored the curriculum during my Fulbright Scholarship in Bogota, Colombia. Often times when I tell people what I do, I get a blank stare and a "so what?" as if noone can understand the larger, more tangible outcomes of empathy. I encourage all parents and school administrators to show this film to your students and to your own friends. The reality of the effects of bullying should be known and felt so that we can all, as engaged global citizens, bring empathy to the forefront of both classroom learning and human interaction.

    April 26, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  2. stu feinstein

    The problem of bullying is ancient history and is deep within the roots of our culture.Perhaps we should begin with the actions of mankind and accept the reality that bullying has always been a weapon of choice.One might even venture to say that the many global actions of America are considered to be bullying under the guise of nation building.It is all quite complex.However,it is a dimension that is here to stay and now being reinfoced via facebook and social media in general.One of the keys to lessening the problem of bullying in schools would be well defined and swift consequences.I taught school for 20+ years and established guidelines for behaviorial expectation that the children understood.There were no excuses and bullying along with other forms of negative behavior immediately triggered meaningful and rapid consequence.Most schools do not have a strategic approach to attempt to resolve the problem.of bullying.They readily can identify problems but they simply do not have effective answers as to provention.So,everyone plays the "victim" and "blame" game...We have met the problem...the problem is us!...Pogo had it right~

    April 20, 2012 at 10:04 am |
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    April 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  4. Ayla

    In some ways bullying is connected to other undesirable behaviors like lying, stealing, manipulation and cheating. There are temptations all around children that test their sense of right and wrong. The adults raising the child influence how child responds/makes sense of situations. The images children see on video games, movies and television can paint a picture of praise for a person who steps on others or manipulates using fear tactics. That can make judgement cloudy or lead a child down a path of inhumane actions. It's the conversations that children have with adults, such as with parents at the dinner table, a coach after practice or a teacher during the school day, that help children sort these things out. It's our job as trusted and responsible adults to address bullies by talking with them, exposing the root of the problem and stopping the behavior. I do not believe that hurtful behaviors are something that anyone has to live with or that anyone should have permission to continue.

    April 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
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    April 18, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  6. Theresa K

    I agree. I have been in education for 30 years and I do not understand why the adults cannot model respectful behavior for our children. In my career, I have learned that I can create a safe space in my classroom and earn the reputation from the students that "you can't talk like that in her room." I am working to open a charter school where I dream of the community saying, "You can't treat people like that in their school." It just takes strong adults who model respectful interactions even when we disagree. The children are watching us; in our schools, in the media, in our neighborhoods. My hope is that this movie will start the conversations to make this diminish. Children will always try to pick on others and we need to stop tolerating it. They will learn. Will we?

    April 17, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  7. Jack Kieser

    I think South Park had it right; if this movie is so "important" and "life-changing", why isn't it being released online, to everyone, for free? If it's so imperative that children see this movie, put it on Facebook or Youtube; putting it in a theatre behind a 10$ paywall isn't helping anyone see this.

    You know why it's a theatrical release? Because the makers of the film are hypocrites, and are trying to make money off of this, instead of doing the right thing and making it free-to-watch. Screw them, and I can't wait for people to pirate it so I can watch it online for free.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Teacher

      Jack: Really? You think that a year or more of work should be "free"? Contact the film maker, I 'm sure will if you will. As for your pirated copy, sure hope if you have kids that you aren't teaching them your lack of regard for laws and other people's property. Sad that you cared enough to read and respond, you probably don't believe that this issue is real either!

      April 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  8. Drew

    This is sad I myself am a 16 year old guy about to turn 17. I was bullied when I was 12-15 years old back in 7th and 8th grade. Whenever this small group of 4 chose to bully me there wasn't much I could do. They bullied me because I had a large noticeable scar on the left side of my face from a early childhood incident. They picked on me for it for a long time and never got in trouble no matter who I told in my old classes. EVEN teachers weren't much help at all. So one day I stood up to them almost after three years of it and got into a fight. I was suspended and 2 of them did as well. To this day I still have the scar and nobody bullies/picks on me anymore since I can and will stand up for myself now. It just saddens me to see the school system failing miserably at preventing bullying because I see it everyday.

    April 16, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Coleen

      Good for you Drew! I am glad you made it through a tough time.

      April 16, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  9. daemach

    If you're determined to take God out of government and schools, then we are working under Darwin's theory, right? There will always be bullies in school because the system teaches them that it's about survival of the fittest. Why should the strong protect the weak?

    You can't have it both ways. Either all human life has value because it was created by God for a purpose or YOU, and your kids, are an accident. A mistake. Your happiness, hopes, dreams, etc. are worth nothing and the survival of the fittest means everything.

    April 16, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • No God

      We do not need God to instill moral values in students.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Bryan

      So it requires GOD in the classroom to have morals and to treat your fellow human being with respect and dignity. Human history is filled with some of the greatest injustices by man committed against man in the name of this very GOD that you suggest is the only thing that can prevent the injustices that are committed in his name. Bullying has nothing to do with God, it has everything to do with parents teaching their children to respect one another, and doing something when your child is on either side of the equation. It is not part of growing up, it does not matter that it happened to you and you lived through it, it can only be stopped, much like racism and any other learned behavior, by parents stepping and and owing the fact that their children are a reflection of them and teaching them right from wrong. Period. God does not parent, you do, step up and do your job.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  10. Randy

    It's a nice thought to teach your kids to stand up for themselves, but as a victim of bullying (being picked on, ran face first into lockers, and eventually six other kids ran me face first into a stone pillar) I can tell you that standing up for yourself does not work anymore. Now the schools are looking at bullying so much, that when a kid stands up for themselves, they are suspended just like the kid who torments them. That in itself is wrong.

    April 16, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  11. crazy bob

    bullying in school has been around since the first school came into existance. why is this such a big deal all of a sudden. when i went to first grade back in the fifties and was bullied i told my dad. he laughed and explained why kids do that and then taught me how to fight back, both mentally and physically. this is the correct way to stop bullying. it is the parents responsibility, not the law or the schools. i was never bullied after that. IT WORKS!!

    April 16, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Wickliffe

      Yes, bullying has been around for ages, however, this generation is much different than ours. Take a look at the music out there now, it is nothing but crap! Take a look at how girls talk and act. Kids have no respect for themselves or anyone else. They feel everything is owed to them. They don't want to work either! I believe what your father told you how to handle bullying was correct. I can also recall a time where I had done it to someone else because they were picking on me, or making fun of me in some way, so I made a cheap shot to a girl with a disability making fun of her. To this day I live with regret of how I treated that girl. So my message would be stand up for yourself!

      April 16, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  12. GreedInAmerica

    If this is a "must see" and "every child needs to see this," then why not put this on the internet for all to see for free. Don't let these buggers fool you, all they care about is the money, the rest is just smoke and mirrors.

    April 16, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Clyde M

      Yeah, god forbid they be paid for their work. They should have taken years off their lives, worked on this film full time, and expect nothing in return, right?

      So sad that you can't see past your own ideology for two seconds to experience what is a powerful message indeed.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  13. Corrupter

    The answer to the bully problem has been, and always will be, teaching children about courage, duty, honor, and responsibility. The "antidote" to bullying is having 5 or 6 well adjusted children sticking up for a person being bullied when it inevitably occurs. This happens by creating a culture of "heroes". You need a critical mass of kids at each school who understand that stopping a bully is their duty. It cannot be effectively done by a parent of school administration. In fact, parents and teachers need to prepare students for this duty, monitor the situation from a distance, and step out of the way.

    Students need to be taught to have courage and to be brave. They need to see these cardinal virtues as something to aspire to and relevant in their lives. Medals for bravery and courage need to be regular parts of school. Students need to be taught to identify a bullying situation, solicit the assistance of their peers to assist in the anti-bullying intervention, and step in to help on the side of the victim. Vigilance, resolve, and action.

    This is how we make responsible adults.

    April 16, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  14. Specwar

    I was bullied throughout gradeschool, and much to my regret, I became a bully in High School. The friends I protected and stood up for still do not offset the poor souls I "teased". I have served in the military, and spent my life protecting others, yet will always regret having bullied some classmates from my youth. I believe that there is no perfect answer to fix many things, it is simply another example of how flawed we humans are. A child standing up for himself might win respect, or might end up dead. A child who complains to his teachers will almost certainly not earn respect, and will still end up being bullied....but will probably live. Even as adults, we fight and struggle in society, the workplace, in our marriages, etc. We can't fix it, but we can survive it, and grow. The most foolish thing I was ever told was that taunts shouldn't hurt me, and violence was NEVER justified. I can tell you that forty years later, I still bear the scars of the taunts.....while I can't recall most of the fights and physical altercations I had.

    April 16, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  15. nokoolaidcowboy

    This is ALL good but the problem is and always has been the parents. Moms and Dads too preoccupied with their own activities to remember that connecting with your children is important. Do they know where their kids are? Who their friends are? What their concerns are? Stop writing things off as "rites of passage" or "I went through the same thing". Connect with your kids.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  16. GySgtG

    there will always be bullies, it is your job to teach you kids to be strong and stand up for themselves.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  17. jusme101

    Cowardly children grow up to be cowardly adults..... Nobody taught them to stand on their own two feet... Just reinforce their cowardace...

    April 16, 2012 at 2:45 am |
  18. jusme101

    Cowardly children grow up to be cowardly adults... Better issue these kids a pair.... They're gonna need them when they grow up...

    April 16, 2012 at 2:44 am |
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