Kwame Nuako, a panelist in a post-film discussion following the March 23 public screening of the documentary “Bully” in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Browning Cinema at the University of Notre Dame, took a deep breath before speaking into the microphone. Lee Hirsch’s 2011 documentary traces the stories of five vulnerable young people who experience the repeated patterns of bullying behavior and its profound impacts, including the tragedy of suicide.
As a pre-professional Notre Dame student and AmeriCorps volunteer of the Robinson Community Learning Center’s (RCLC’s) Take Ten violence prevention program, Nuako said of the film’s message, “It reminds me of the importance of prevention rather than just reacting to specific incidents.”
Bullying in schools is a complex problem that can be solved, according to the comments of other panelists. “The solution entails deep, cultural, and systemic communitywide work,” says Ellen Kyes, director of the Robinson Center’s Take Ten program, which teaches students and the adults around them conflict resolution skills in schools across the country.
Ted Barron, DeBartolo’s senior associate director, says the documentary received substantial attention upon its original release. “The film seemed to be a significant piece that resonated with students, parents and educators across the nation. It is brutally honest in the way it depicts the tough situations some vulnerable children are facing,” says Barron.
Barron says he was intrigued when several different campus groups and diverse community partners approached him about bringing the film to South Bend. Barron says the collaborative work of Sean Martin, DeBartolo’s director of community engagement, of community partners like The Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley, and of multiple campus groups influenced the University’s purchase of the rights to “Bully” and DeBartolo’s decision to host more than 2.400 local seventh- and eighth-grade students from the South Bend Community School Corp. (SBCSC) at two private screenings on March 14 and 15.
Another key partner in the comprehensive initiative is Karla Lee, director/coach for intermediate centers at SBCSC. Lee describes current anti-bullying campaigns and programs in SBCSC’s buildings: “For the last five years, we have taken surveys and set up anonymous tip lines. The school corporation has the Take Ten violence prevention program in over 15 of our schools. We work closely with students and their families on this issue. However, seeing this film made the students connect to the subject in a new way.”
Lee says, “‘Bully’ is a hard film to watch. It [the film] generates an immediate and powerful emotional response. By watching students their own age tell their stories on the screen, our kids [intermediate center students] could see the initial incidents and the painful ripple effects on the victim, the victim’s friends and family, on the school environment and in the community.”
Lee says school officials wavered during multiple conversations about showing this film. She discussed the project and partnership at length with the superintendent and her cabinet, with intermediate center principals, and with community organizations. Initially, the school corporation’s principals and administrators were concerned about how students and their parents would be affected by the graphic nature of the footage in the documentary.
“We knew a standard post-screening discussion was not enough,” says Lee. The film has become the centerpiece of a nationwide anti-bullying effort called the Bully Project. SBCSC intermediate center principals adapted components of the Bully Project to design a nine-day anti-bullying campaign tailored to the specific needs of each school community. Pre- and post-screening activities included: debriefing sessions, guest speakers, a teacher workshop, cross-curricular lesson plans, art projects and the integration of what Lee calls “the parent piece” by timing the project to coincide with opportunities for discussion during the district’s parent-teacher conferences.
According to anti-bullying research, the social problem that spans geography, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic status affected more than 75 percent of all children in the United States in 2011 (Oleus).
Lee says the pervasive nature of bullying impacted of the decision to participate in the partnership. “Ultimately, we don’t have any school that is immune to bullying in this nation. It is also important to have students, educators and other adults see some of the extreme examples of acting out and how to work together to address those situations in our community.”
More information about the film “Bully” and the Bully Project is available at http://www.thebullyproject.com/. The powerful 2011 documentary is available on Netflix and elsewhere.