The graphic, unflinching look at violence committed against American schoolchildren in the documentary Bully comes through the lens of students and families in the Midwest and South. But writer and producer Cynthia Lowen cautions that the events in her film happen everywhere.
The Colorado College graduate, and her writing partner and director Lee Hirsch, made Bully as a reaction to Hirsch's experiences being bullied as a child. The stories they found are hard to shake.
Seventeen-year-old Tyler Long of Chatsworth, Ga., commits suicide after bullying compounds a list of pre-existing social problems, but administrators from his school system refuse to take part in a town hall meeting on bullying problems in the district.
The parents of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, in Perkins, Okla., invite Bully's cameras to his funeral after he commits suicide in reaction to school suspension for standing up to a bully. His parents take their bullhorn, message to the state capital and form the anti-bullying group Stand for the Silent when no one else listens.
Sixteen-year-old Kelby Johnson of Tuttle, Okla., is run out of town by classmates and school faculty after she comes out as a lesbian.
Ja'Maya Jackson, 14, sits in a juvenile corrections facility in Yazoo County, Miss., for pulling a gun on a busload of classmates after being tormented daily on said bus.
Alex Libby, 13, from Sioux City, Iowa, is threatened at a bus stop, has his head slammed against seats and his body stabbed with pencils while riding to school, and is punched in the schoolyard once he arrives, forcing Lowen and Hirsch to share their footage with school administrators who still think the solution to bullying is making both parties shake hands or addressing symptoms instead of the cause.
With Lowen taking such an active role in Bully's subject matter and the lives of those involved, we spoke with her about how the film came together, what she learned along the way, and what needs to be done to address bullying in the future and to prevent outcomes like those seen in the film. The solutions sound simple, but they're hidden behind as many obstacles as a bullied child's path to the classroom:
Indy: How did you go about finding the five kids and families whose stories made Bully possible?
CL: We came to them in all different ways. We found Kelby's family because her mother had written in to Ellen DeGeneres' blog after Ellen had done a show about bullying, talking about the horrendous bullying that Kelby was experiencing. We were so struck by A) the severity of what was going on and B) the fact that the whole community had turned against her. In that case, Ellen's producers helped us get in touch with Kelby.
We heard about the Longs through a small local news story about the town hall meeting they were planning to have, following Tyler's passing away. We were really amazed that they were bringing the community together like that, and really struck that the school administrators were not going to be participating. We saw a real division in this community over what was happening around this issue.
Ja'Maya we heard about because after the boy totally courageously tackled her and got the gun away, we felt there was a side of the story that wasn't being told. Someone doesn't just bring a gun onto their bus for no reason. She was in a juvenile detention facility when we met her, so in talking to her family and talking to her, we discovered that she had been picked on, on her bus quite a bit.
In Alex's case, we'd gotten access to the Sioux City Community School District over the summer before the school year began. We met him sitting outside in front of school before the school year started, looking pretty alone and sort of ostracized. We started talking to him alone before we found out he had been bullied.
The Smalleys we also found through a small, local news story. We reached out to them just before Ty Smalley's funeral.
Indy: You had incredible access to the families throughout, but especially with the Smalleys. What was your interaction with the Smalleys like before filming Ty's funeral, and how did you feel about making that part of the narrative?
CL: One of the amazing things about Kirk and Laura is that they immediately knew after Ty had passed away that they wanted a voice. They wanted people to know what was going on and they wanted to get the word out there that this is happening, that this is very serious in our communities, and that no parents should be going through the loss that they're going through.
Immediately, Kirk was like, "Whatever you have to do, get the word out there. This has to stop." That was why they really courageously let us into what is one of the most private moments you can go through as a human being, to have to bury your own child.
With every family, it was very intense, but they all became partners in the process with us. We couldn't have made a film like this without their trust and without their faith in what a film like this can do.
Indy: Alex's case is particularly striking not only because of the access you had, but because the students in the Sioux City school district had seemingly no fear of consequences from teachers or administrators, but no fear of your cameras. You caught a lot of instances of Alex having his head slammed into seats and being stabbed with pencils as if you weren't even there. Who was doing the filming, and how were you able to get this footage?
CL: We were literally tow people, Lee Hirsch, the film's director, and I. He shot 99 percent of the film.
The kids really got used to seeing us. They didn't know what we were making a film about. They just knew that we were making a film about their lives. I also think that the kind of camera we used helped with the kind of access we got. We used a Canon 5B, which looks like a still camera, so I think that the kids often didn't know that we were shooting video or could capture sound.
The other thing is that the kids on the bus never faced any consequences for bullying Alex. I don't think they saw us as authority figures. They didn't see their bus driver as an authority figure, for sure. I don't think they behaved any differently when we were there, but I know it was much worse when we weren't there. I don't think they saw us as an impediment to behavior they'd been exhibiting for a long time.
Indy: Alex's parents have a meeting with the assistant principal later in the film that goes nowhere. Was the administration in Alex's school as oblivious to bullying as it seemed?
CL: I think that, in that particular school, they didn't have the tools to deal with bullying.
It was a school where if five dollars went missing, it was like a five-alarm fire and the police would be called and the principal would march all of these kids into the office. As far as the values of that particular school, something like five dollars going missing is a very big deal, but something like a kid being assaulted is just kids being kids and not a big deal.
When people are not equipped and don't have the tools to respond to bullying, they have a hard time admitting that problems exist. I don't think the principal of that school was a bad person, but I just don't think she had the tools to effectively handle the problem. It's evident in the scene where she makes the boy who's clearly the target shake hands with the boy who's the bully, as if that will make it go away.
Indy: During your travels, did you find any situations or schools where there were people within the administration who were capable of dealing with this kind of thing? Are there intermediaries in other school districts that are a solution to the problem?
CL: In that same school district, the Sioux City school district, we filmed at a middle school where the administrators don't have the tools to deal with it, but we also filmed at West High School across town.
At West High, they were a decade into bullying-prevention work. They had implemented a lot of programs about violence prevention. They also had great leadership. They took things like name-calling very seriously and would stop to address behaviors on the minor end of the bullying spectrum so they wouldn't escalate. They have several classes of peer mentors and, in that school, you saw a radically different climate.
You can tell the climate of a school from the feeling you get when you walk through the door, and in West High, you get the feeling that the students own the culture of that school.
Indy: As opposed to Alex's school, where a scene involving him and his classmates being filed into the building by administrators looks like wardens clearing a prison yard.
CL: I was having a talk with someone the other day who was saying that the time of day kids dread the most is recess. It's largely unsupervised and is the time of day where, if you're a target, it's most painful. It's the time of day when you feel the most ostracism and where, in Alex's case, he would be punched and no one would see it.
That's when it's most scary for kids being targeted: recess, the bus, the bus stop, the hallways between classes. The fact of the matter is, we all know this. This is not news to anybody who has ever been in a school, and that's why there are a lot of obvious things that schools need to do to make those areas safe for students.
Indy: Alex's mom brings up this point with the assistant principal and notes, perhaps idyllically, that there used to be a stronger sense of discipline — that school bus drivers would stop the bus and pull over if kids were acting up. Why is that no longer the case?
CL: I feel like often the schools will throw up their hands when it comes to the bus.
I think there's work being done out there — a growing awareness that you have to have ways to have bus drivers connect with kids off the bus, and that you have to set expectations so that you're not trying to drive, deal with the road, deal with behavior, and deal with the pressure of being on time.
Bus drivers often feel like they don't have a lot of authority. There's not a lot of communication between them and administrators, and they don't feel like they can discipline effectively because there's a lot of pressure.
Schools will spend so much on climate and discipline in the schools, but it all goes out the door when the kids get on the bus. The idea that buses aren't part of school really needs to be transformed. If that bus driver were to get on the bus drunk one morning and crash it off a bridge, who would be responsible? The school district is accountable for what happens on buses, and if children are being harmed on that bus, the schools have to be responsible for that.
Indy: The parents in Bully end up facing some of the same problems that their own children encounter as a result of bullying: a lack of help from teachers and administrators and a feeling of overall powerlessness. Does the pain inflicted by bullying eventually spread beyond those being bullied?
CL: I think parents of kids who are chronically targeted experience a very similar phenomenon as the kids themselves. You try to get help, but when you don't get help the first, the second or the third time, I think there's a deep level of frustration, of powerlessness and having no ability to make that behavior stop.
I think it's very destructive to the entire family, not just to the kids being targeted.
Indy: Kelby Johnson was forced out of the school district in Tuttle, Oklahoma, after she was ostracized by both bullying students and an indifferent school faculty. We see Kelby and her family describe these incidents, but there's no footage of any of them. What was the Tuttle school administration's involvement in your project, and what was their response to it?
CL: We did reach out to them. They're not in the film, and chose not to participate in the film. We'll see what their response to the film will be this week, after the movie opens up in Oklahoma City.
So proud of you Catherine!!! I knew you could do it!!!
I read an early draft of Ghostland in 2014 that was written by Jon Orr…