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Parents, students moved by "Bully" on opening day

Castle Rock mom Angela Strickler looked around Denver’s Mayan Theater with dismay Friday night.

She and her friends bought tickets to the 7:30 showing of Bully for themselves and their kids online a week ago, figuring the movie would likely be sold out. They’d driven all the way into downtown Denver to find the theater wasn’t even half-full.

Strickler is hoping that when word gets out about how powerful the film is, more people will come.

“Anyone who has a child should be made to watch this movie,” she said, moments after the credits rolled. “It’s sad that only two theaters in the area are showing it. But I guess people just don’t want to deal with this.”

The much-acclaimed Bully, a 2011 documentary about bullying in U.S. schools, opened in Denver Friday night with a PG-13 rating, thanks to the removal of some expletives that had earlier earned it an R-rating. The R-rating would have severely limited the ability of youngsters to view the movie.

Strickler, who came with her two children, ages 8 and 11, said she would brought them to see Bully even with an R-rating. “They hear that kind of language on the bus,” she said. “We’ll talk about it afterward. I don’t want my kids living in a bubble.”

Jennifer Jorgenson, who brought her 11-year-old son, said, “I think if kids are raised well, they can filter out the language.”

Also with the group were Kresta Lancaster and her 11-year-old twin sons. The boys are all on the same soccer team, though they all go to different schools.

All the women – and their children – agreed that the evening had been well-spent, and that the movie raises all sorts of uncomfortable issues that families and schools need to address head-on.

“I think the movie made it look like bullying is just a small-town thing, but it’s so much more,” Jorgenson said. “I was the assistant to the principal in a school, and we dealt with things so much differently than the school administrators in the movie. But it’s so hard. I can see both sides of it.”

Documentary explores how bullying changes students, families’ lives

Bully follows the lives of five students who face bullying every day:

  • Two of those youngsters, 17-year-old Tyler Long of Chatsworth, Ga., and 11-year-old Ty Field-Smalley of Perkins, Okla., committed suicide, and the film follows the efforts of their parents and friends to come to terms with what happened to the boys;
  • Also profiled are 14-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is tormented, especially on the school bus, where he has been punched, strangled, poked and sat on for years;
  • 16-year-old Kelby Johnson, of Tuttle, Okla., a lesbian who has been physically and emotionally abused by both students and adults;
  • 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson, of Yazoo County, Miss., a one-time honor student who snapped one day and pulled her mom’s gun out of her backpack and threatened her tormentors on the school bus. She wound up spending months in a juvenile detention center before being released back to her mother, but avoided the felony charges that could have confronted her.

There’s no analysis of the events, and no narrator to explain what the audience is seeing. Director Lee Hirsch says that’s intentional. He’s hopeful that by leaving unsaid what sorts of psychology drive both the bullies and the bullied – and the adults who respond with varying degrees of concern – the film will serve as a starting point for conversations about bullying.

Lauren Counterman, a senior at Aurora’s Gateway High School, attended Bully at Ed News’ request to critique it and offer her observations about the film. She said that even though the schools featured in the film are far different from her diverse urban high school, the experiences and the desperation the movie portrays ring true.

“It’s very accurate as to how things are,” said Lauren, 17. “All the stories I could identify with on some level.”

Lauren, who will attend Regis University in the fall to study peace and justice, is president of Gateway’s Gay Straight Alliance. She already does a lot to promote tolerance and acceptance of those who are outside the mainstream.

But after sobbing through the movie – “I didn’t stop crying the whole way through” – she left the theater promising to do more.

“I’ll try to organize a pep rally or something,” she promised. But she’ll also change her own behavior.

“There are kids in the hallway no one talks to,” she said. “They don’t interact the way other kids do, and the more people don’t talk to them, the worse their situation gets. I’m going to stop thinking about talking to them and just do it.”

The Castle Rock moms, too, say the movie will impact their behavior. All of them say their children have had some experiences of being bullied, and some of the kids have at times been bullies themselves.

“I’m going to watch what I say about people more,” said Ferguson. “I already try not to make fun of people or say derogatory things, but I’m going to be more aware of what comes out of my mouth.”

Resources for educators, parents on Bully and bullying

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