March 16th, 2013
06:04 PM ET

Hirsch: Help schools go beyond bullying

Program note: Watch the AC360° documentary "The Bully Effect" on CNNI at 8 p.m. ET tonight. The film follows the lives of families featured in the movie "Bully."

By Lee Hirsch
Director, "Bully"

As a documentary filmmaker, I’m privileged to tell the stories of others safely from behind the camera, but when I started to work on the movie “Bully,” more than three years ago, I had to revisit my own experience of being bullied in school. I also had to face how that impacted my adult life.

Bullying for me was violent and, at times, terrifying. Black and blue turned to yellow for months on end. In the early days of making the film, it was about validating the experience for myself and for others who have experienced the humiliation and sadness of being a victim. Now, the key question is how do we tap into the momentum the film has generated to create lasting, positive change?

With incredible velocity, the heightened awareness about bullying has inspired civic and legislative action at the school, community and federal level. However, the change we need won’t happen through anti-bullying policies alone. Bullying is a symptom of a deeper need to prepare our young people with the social and emotional tools and connections they need to thrive.

So how can schools become places where students feel supported? Where they are developing the whole set of skills they need to succeed and grow up healthy, confident, and connected to those around them? Here are a few places to start:

Help schools become more transparent

The challenge with TV and film is that in telling the personal stories of success, it’s very difficult to contextualize the real world struggles of the work to end bullying.

For example, Sioux City Schools get a bum rap in “Bully,” because it is there where we see bullying take place on camera. It is much harder to speak to the courage they had to be transparent. That transparency is one of the keys to transforming our schools.

It was through the presence of a film crew that the community in Sioux City, Iowa was able to learn of the struggles some students where facing despite a commitment to bullying prevention for more than 10 years.

The truth is that sometimes the things that have the biggest impact on whether kids thrive in school is hard to see. Most schools do not have a documentary camera crew roaming the hallways. But I often ask educators, if they did, what would they see?

What gets assessed gets addressed. Surveying students and teachers regularly about the school climate is the only way to get an accurate picture of whether the school is caring and safe for everyone. Doing so would help educators make better decisions about how to prevent and respond to bullying, and to know whether their prevention strategies are working.

Ensure each student has a caring adult at school

Another simple practice is to ensure that every student has a healthy relationship with at least one school adult. Students need someone that will not just tell them what to do, but will listen and provide support and guidance. It could be a teacher, counselor, or school support staff member.

One way to do this is “relationship mapping” to see which students do and do not have positive, nurturing relationships with school adults. To achieve this, educators could administer a brief handout or online survey to all staff (including counselors, coaches, activity leaders, etc.) asking them to identify students in the school that they feel they have positive, trusting relationships with - students who would talk to them if they were having a social problem. Through this exercise, educators could determine which students were not identified by any staff, and make a plan for getting those students more connected.

Encourage Schools to Experiment and Innovate

Many solutions that create lasting impact are home brewed. That gives me hope. In filming “The Bully Effect,” I returned for the first time to my middle school in Rockville Center, Long Island. A school that was once a place of torment for me, has now made it a priority to help each student develop socially and emotionally, as well as academically.

One of their initiatives is to honor members of their community who practice empathy by giving them a wooden hand that honors their acts of kindness. The hands are then mounted permanently on the walls of the school. Slowly they are filling their halls with a new kind of trophy. It is homegrown innovations like these that can fundamentally change the culture of a school.

At the end of the day, we must measure our success as role models on whether we provide children with what they need to grow up happy, healthy and prepared. By changing the culture of our schools to promote positive emotional and social development, we won’t just keep bullying at bay. We’ll be giving our young people the future they deserve.

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Filed under: Bullying • Opinion • The Bully Effect
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Melinda

    Our daughters have been bullied both physical and not , more psychologically. We have been to the highest person in our district and still the child remains in the school. Now, for the past 4 months I have become a target by the family too. What do you do? They have even made false accusations against me thgrough the police department and I was investigated. They claim I call them and I don't . This is the third year someone is dealing with this childs problems. I am not backing down but I am becoming worn down....physically and psychologically.what can I do WHEN NO ONE IS LISTENING!!!

    May 7, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  2. Lenore

    Where can I get a copy of " The Bully Effect" documentary?

    April 29, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  3. Cassidy

    I watched the documentary "Bully" in my English class and i could not help but to be moved by these stories. I am only 17 years old and I feel compelled to speak up about bullying because it has become a nationwide negative epidemic. The stories the kids shared brought me to tears and the fact many teachers or principals do not take any action bothers me the most. Parents are personally meeting with the schools' staff and telling them the issues their children are going through. From the footage I watched, I could not understand why the teachers still refused to punish the bullies. My heart goes out to all of the people who are being bullied or were at some point in their life. I hope parents can soon send their children to school in hopes they will not be harmed.

    April 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  4. rose macaskie

    Bullying is very complicated and so aspects of it did not get much emphasis in your program which seemed to me to concentrate on the most obvious slap stick parts of bullying. There are other parts to bullying such as emotional abandonment, as in, at school, the other children simple totally ignoring you. Also, I have read books on abuse at work and at home and one feature of abuse is how good the abusive are at pulling all others against the victim, One bully trick is to convince everyone that the victims are the bullies. I have lived with bullies andd they are so clever at bullying that it is hard to credit how good they are at doing others down and looking like the goodies. Your program seemed to tremendously simplify what is a very complicated activity and often one that is taught at home which gives some children an enormouse advantage when it comes to squiggling out of arguments and always capping other people arguements and being so very twisted that no one can believe that they would do such a thing as what they are doing, it is easier to believe the bullllied have done somthing wrong on a lesser scale than that the bullies would leave others looking so bad without hardley a scrap of truth behind their accusations. Bullies have been taught by their parents, which means by somone with years of experience in the feild. rose macaskie madrid

    March 19, 2013 at 12:19 am |
  5. Lora Taylor

    My son is bullied by teachers and students. Please help our kids!!

    March 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  6. maryann

    In elementary school you think your children will be happy and not be teased and feel not stressed. As a parent we want to protect our children and make sure there happy. Well let me tell you it has been very hard especially for one of my kids. It has been and on go thing since last year that they have been bully by different kids at school.It sickens me that what makes a child so young want to be little another? Is it the parents not doing their jobs and teaching there children to be kind to others and treat others the way you want to be treated? Sometimes I think it is the parents saying not my kid, and turning the other cheek. In life I teach my child to love life and to respect others. I think it is up to the parents and guardians to step up and get involved!

    March 17, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  7. Jodi

    I am the mother of a 15 year old child that has been through trauma in his life and also has been bullied since he was in 4th grade. I watched the documentary Bully Effect and really hit me hard. I want more schools to get on board and take a look at their schools and take a stand on bullying. I know for a fact the school that my son goes to hasn't done anything all these years and I am constantly in touch with the principal and teachers. They used to always say "well "bob" did this and "bob" did that, but never looked at the kids that were picking on him. I wish I could get something set up for someone to come to our school system and help us make a stand. thank you for airing this show and I hope more people take a stand.

    March 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm |

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