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
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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