Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Casey Heynes Moment

“13 million kids will be bullied in the US this year.”

So we learn in the documentary movie Bully, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, and showing in theaters since the end of March. If you're lucky, you'll learn that it's showing near you. If you live anywhere other than Los Angeles or New York City, that could be difficult, as the promotion hasn't been all that great. This writer was fortunate enough to catch it earlier today at one of several locations. Starting tomorrow, it shows at only one theater in the DC area.

The movie takes us on a journey with The Bully Project, as it follows the lives of five children and their families in five different states over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. We meet Kelby, a 17-year-old girl with tomboyish mannerisms, who has "come out" as gay. She describes a group of students who hit her with a car, and is embarrassed that it was only a minivan (driven by someone unaware that vehicular assault is a felony in most states). The one thing Kelby has going for her, though, is the support of friends, which gives her a critical mechanism for coping.

Much of the film follows 12-year-old Alex, a shy, awkward, geeky sort of fellow, who is tormented on the school bus daily, and has learned to live with it, much to the surprise of his own father. We are told that, since the release of this film, Alex is now more popular in school. One may conclude that a nationwide audience is a necessary deterrent to such mistreatment. If that's what it takes in this case, more power to Alex.

We also see school administrators who are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the problem. We meet an assistant principal who is absolutely clueless as to the scale of what desperate parents bring to her. We also meet another assistant principal, slightly more proactive, but every bit as clueless, who is taken aback for not being seen as doing all she can. (No, the bully doesn't sit on Alex's head on the bus anymore. Now he just torments him in numerous other ways. She expects the Nobel Peace Prize for this?)

But more important, we learn what is being done by the parents themselves, who have lost children to suicide. Two years ago, Kirk and Laura Smalley lost their 11-year-old son Ty to suicide. As a result, Stand for the Silent was born. They have a website, and two Facebook pages, one for general notices, another for conversation.

The movie is a deeply moving account into the hopes and dreams of those who are threatened in this way, and the heartbreak of parents who must confront indifference. (The scene in the trailer where a coach admonishes several boys does not appear in the final cut of the film.) But the movie is not without its critics. Writing for, Emily Bazelon laments that the film "dangerously oversimplifies the connection between bullying and suicide," but otherwise gives it praise.

Personally, this writer is skeptical. We have dealt here with the problem of bullying on two occasions. Further, I was a victim of bullying through grade school, high school, and for several years, as an adult in my job with the Federal Government. I can speak with personal experience, and in great detail, of how helpless anyone in a position of authority can be. In the fall of 2000, my son Paul was accosted by his freshman football coach, in the locker room of a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. (The boy's father only learned the whole story after graduation, and attempts at a legal remedy proved futile.) A series of events led to Paul's later success in life, which is a story in itself, but he is one of the lucky ones. This cannot be said for the son of Kirk and Laura Smalley.

And yet, standing in a circle and sending balloons in the air may bring solace to grieving parents, and we will not downplay that aspect of it here, but it does not solve the problem of bullying.

It is here that there is both a short-term and a long-term remedy.

The one for the short term, is not to assume that a bully can be reasoned with. Those who resort to physical or emotional torment on a sustained basis are not reasonable people, or they would not engage in such behavior. Their parents are generally unaware of what their children are doing, and would be shocked at the very accusation. The only message a bully understands, is the one provided by Casey Heynes, the Australian boy who, last year, gave Richard Gale a taste of his own medicine, as seen in this video that has gone viral. Richard may have walked funny for a few days afterwords, but he may never harm another living thing for the rest of his life.

Sadly, not every confrontation can have such a happy ending. Father Robert Barron goes to what may be the root cause of such destructive behavior, which is prerequisite for any solution in the long term.

One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one around to turn them into men. Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society.

It is the fault of society, through the breakdown of family systems, and an incompetent educational system, that the raw material of youth cannot be honed into a more productive member of that society. Until the problem can truly be remedied, and public awareness can be brought to bear, with documentaries like this and the efforts they inspire, some kids will require the good old-fashioned country @$$-whoopin' they richly deserve, don't you think?

Or don't you?

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