Like many school districts in the country, Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District joined an initiative called “The Bully Project,” sponsored by the makers of the documentary film called Bully. The project, funded through individual donors via Donor’s Choose, covers the cost of tickets for students to see the film. As a result, 14,000 middle and high school students in my district saw the documentary on the big screen with their peers.
The film tracks the lives of six youth who experience bullying at school. As I watched this film with 250 students from my school, I knew that many of them could relate both to the victims and the perpetrators. I expected students to respond to what they saw other youth in the film inflicting upon each other. However, when we debriefed the film back on campus, one of the scenes that produced the most discussion was about adult intervention, or lack thereof.
The scene in question follows what happens when the principal tries to mediate a conflict between two boys. The administrator catches only the tail end of the dispute, but rather than try to get more information from the boys and piece together a complete story, she demands that the student who was being bullied shake hands with his bully. The bully shakes hands smugly and is sent on his way with no further consequence. When the bullied student refuses to shake hands, he faces further disciplinary action.
To students, this is a clear case of injustice. The principal was wrong to punish the victim. She didn’t help the bully. She was rash in her decisions. She didn’t do enough. She looks incompetent. For teachers and principals watching the film, however, this may have been a familiar moment. While all of us hope that we have never handled a conflict between students so poorly, we also know that in the rush from one task to the next and in the depths of the busy-ness that is the work of public school educators, we have made mistakes that when replayed might resemble this scene.
I left the theater knowing I never wanted to dole out such a superficial solution to a student suffering from bullying, which meant I could never again suggest high school students already have the tools to resolve conflict on their own.
My own resolution was tested the very next day. I had not even made it to my classroom, when I heard one of my ninth-grade students yell “faggot” at the top of her lungs across the blacktop to a sixth-grade boy. Even though I was burdened with a list of things I had to do to be ready to teach that morning, things that would allow me to be as present as possible for the students in my classroom, I knew I had to say something to the young woman. My reaction to her comments was about more than the conflict with another student. I wanted to prevent a climate in which this kind of name-calling, when coupled with a power differential, could result in bullying.
I called her to the side and began in a way I wouldn’t have been able to without our collective experience. I said to her simply, “Did you see the movie Bully yesterday?” She had and glanced at the ground. “How do you think your actions would be portrayed in that film?” Her response was that the boy she was calling a faggot was really a friend who knew she was joking, a justification used many times by bullying perpetrators in the film as well. I told her to think about her actions, and I proceeded to class.
That night, having had time to reflect, I created a more thoughtful reflection for her to complete the next day. I asked her to answer these questions after watching a video of Monica Mendoza’s poem “Faggot,” talking about the climate that led to the deaths of Matthew Shepard Bobby Griffith.
Bullying can no longer be an acceptable rite of passage. Too many children are dying. The public generally looks to teachers and school officials to solve the issue of bullying. We need help and support. I believe that watching “Bully” is an important first step for adults and for students. But I also believe that adults need time to figure out how best to intervene. We need training. We need feedback. If we are going to combat bullying, we need to give ourselves space to figure out how best to do this.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.