SPECIAL REPORT: “It was almost impossible not to cry – or at least not to have tears in your eyes,” said Sahil Desai, a junior at Northern Valley Demarest High School, after attending a showing of “Bully” along with 600 other students from throughout the county at Bergen PAC in Englewood.
The first feature-length documentary to show how devastating bullying can be – and what each of us can do about it – Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” had a powerful effect on the teens, parents and others who attended its Bergen County premiere Wednesday.
“Bullying does not just affect one person,” Desai said. “It affects everyone – the family, the school, and the community as a whole.”
Hirsch, an Emmy winner who was once a young victim of bullies, spent the 2009-10 school year researching the cases of five youngsters, two of whom killed themselves. Direct and uncompromising, his film shows bullies openly harassing their victims, administrators turning a blind eye to the punishment – even police ignoring it, all while the cameras were rolling.
The tales include that of 12-year-old Alex Hopkins, who was taunted by classmates and threatened with awful physical harm but took it because he wanted to be their friend. Hirsch brings district administrators footage shot on a schoolbus of Alex being terrorized – and captures the boys’ parents being told, in turn, that the youngsters are “good as gold.”
Then there’s Tyler Long, 17, dubbed “worthless” by bullies who urged him to kill himself.
Tyler (right) made a video urging his friend to ignore those who taunted him, then hanged himself from a closet shelf.
“Kids will be kids, boys will be boys,” a Georgia school official says at a town hearing after Tyler’s death. “They’re just cruel at that age.”
Tyler’s story clearly had great impact on the Bergen PAC audience that attended an evening showing. Like others, he spoke up but was ignored, then tragically took matters into his own hands.
It brought to mind another Tyler – Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student from Ridgewood who jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death in September 2010 after being cyberbullied because of his homosexuality.
Ingrid Brennan, a pediatric nurse, said she understood the pain of having her child bullied but was shocked by the numbers of death described in the film. A scene in which teens release balloons into the sky, representing those who killed themselves, clutched at her heart, she said following the film.
“Bully” made its way to Bergen County thanks in large part to state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, the lead sponsor of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. She co-hosted the event along with her husband, Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle III.
Because of the language, the Motion Picture Association of America initially gave “Bully” an R rating. In turn, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut held a screening in Washington, D.C., two months ago, and more than a half-million people signed a petition requesting a PG-13 rating that would allow young teens – the demographic that could benefit most – to see the powerful educational tool.
Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing the film, kept it intact and left it to the theaters to determine whether kids could see it with or without their parents. The MPAA eventually relented and lowered the rating.
Still, no theaters in Bergen County stepped up – which is why Vainieri Huttle and her husband stepped in.
“We can’t legislate morality,” the assemblywoman said during a panel discussion after Wednesday night’s show, “but we can fix the behavior. We start with change today.”
Vanieri Huttle said she was inspired to work against bullying “by listening to the stories of family, friends, and receiving phone calls of what was going on in the schools. Teachers were not helping the victims of bullying and this needed to be changed.”
The film and panel discussion emphasized that bullying is not limited to physical attacks, but rather, is more common as psychological and emotional harassment and intimidation. Panel participants included Andrew Yeager, a New Jersey state psychologist with 30 years of professional experience in adolescent issues; Luanne Peterpaul, Vice Chair of Garden State Equality and attorney at Peterpaul & Clark, PC; and Corey Bernstein, a high school junior who is president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at The Hudson School and recipient of the Laurel Hester Prize for Citizen Courage.
According to Hirsch, more than 13 million children in America will be bullied this year, “making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation.”
However, the “takeaway” from the film clearly is the encouragement that each and every person who stands up against bullying not only directly helps someone in desperate need: It also brings us closer to a world free of such domestic terror.
The message clearly stuck with Northern Valley HS junior Perri Schwartzman.
“I think everyone should watch this movie,” she said. “Hopefully it will touch some individuals who do bully others, and inspire students who do not bully to continue to prevent it.”
This article was written by the youngest staffer at CLIFFVIEW PILOT, 16-year-old Lexy Siegel of Northern Valley High School.