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Bully (it’s time to stop hiding behind ‘kids will be kids’)

When I was little, I had a lisp. It wasn’t the sweet Cindy Brady kind. It was the sort that involved years of speech therapy, which usually ended with me in tears. The phrase Sally sells seashells by the seashore still gives me shudders. Because I was difficult to understand, I didn’t really speak much. I was critically shy. I was a dreamer, and preferred to be lost in my own little world. (Okay, I was the ‘weird’ kid who would hang out with my stuffed animals under the shade at recess instead of playing tag with everyone else).

And we all know what normally happens to those shy little kids in primary school: they get bullied.  My bullying in primary school wasn’t awful. My older sister was two grades above me, and she was pretty much the primary school equivalent to a rock star. She was charismatic, popular, tough and fiercely protective. It was the sibling paradox: she could tease me relentlessly, but pity the fool who even looked at me the wrong way (trust me; you’d prefer to mess with Mr. T over my big sister).

I didn’t turn into a beautiful swan of a teenager. I transitioned to awkward. I entered high school without my big sister to protect me. I was quiet, sensitive and was clearly not comfortable in my own skin. I was an easy target, so I was bullied. It was by no means extensive. I always had friends. I never had to eat lunch alone. I was never beaten up, or locked in a locker, or had a cruel prank played on me. I always knew someone had my back. But I was still teased. There were some days in which I faked being sick to stay home and times when I begged my parents to send me to a boarding school interstate. I had a favourite toilet cubicle at school that I would lock myself in so I could cry.  I spent my early years of high school thinking I wasn’t good enough.

I know I wasn’t alone in this feeling or this experience. I know so many people have gone through it, are going through it, and will go through it. I know that many have had it far, far, far worse than I did. And thanks to the emergence of social media, it’s become more severe.  In recent years, many adolescents have committed suicide due to bullying.  The courts are starting to recognise this and governments are finally beginning to look at bullying as a serious form of assault. The cases of Alex Wildman, Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer and Phoebe Prince reflect this shift. But is it enough?

We’re always taught the old schoolyard rhyme Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me, but I believe this is extremely unhelpful. Sticks and stones may leave a bruise but words can haunt for years. We need to treat psychological forms of bullying as seriously as physical violence.  We have a responsibility to make sure children and teeenagers only want to stay home because they don’t want to do a maths test, not because they don’t feel safe.

Perhaps it’s not discipline after the fact that is the key to solving this epidemic. Maybe it’s educating about the effects of bullying. A way to do this is to show all the young people in your life the documentary Bully, which has just been released in the US. Stay tuned to our facebook page for information on when it will be made available in Australia, or like Bully’s facebook page for further updates. The documentary is directed by Lee Hirsch and the summary is below.

“Following five kids and families over the course of a school year, the film confronts bullying’s most tragic outcomes, including the stories of two families who’ve lost children to suicide and a mother who waits to learn the fate of her 14 –year-old daughter, incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With rare access to the Sioux City Community School District, the film also gives an intimate glimpse into school busses, classrooms, cafeterias and even principles offices, offering insight into the often-cruel world of children, as teachers, administrators and parents struggle to find answers.”

Regrettably, The Motion Picture Association of America gave Bully a R rating, blaming the use of profanity. This meant anyone under the age of 17 would be unable to see it without a guardian accompanying them, which is ridiculous considering the subject matter.  Despite a petition signed by over 476,000 people asking for it to be lowered to PG 13 (and pleas from celebrities such as Ellen, Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep) the MPAA chose to remain with the initial rating. This has forced the Weinstein company to release Bully unrated. It’s now up to individual theaters to decide who to let into the movie, and who to turn away. Hopefully the theater managers don’t err on the side of caution, and instead see the documentary for what it is: a representation of today’s schoolyard politics. The children the MPAA think they are trying to protect are already living through it, there’s no point playing warden.

It’s time to take bullying seriously and not dismiss it as part of growing up. We can’t hide behind the notion the experience is ‘character building’ and ‘makes you stronger’. While we can confidentially say as a twenty-something and beyond it gets easier, at the time, the feeling of worthlessness is so encompassing. And I believe with the safety and luxury of a decade or so behind us, it’s easy to forget how devastating being bullied feels.

So, I beg you, when it becomes available to you, watch the documentary. Tell others to watch it. If you work in a school, campaign to have it shown. We need to make school environments less toxic and make sure children and teenagers understand that their actions have real consequences, long after the words have left their lips.

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