Victims of bullying, including Iowa boy, featured in documentary
The high-profile documentary “Bully,” released in limited U.S. cities Friday, features Sioux City’s decade-long anti-bullying program and a Sioux City student who moved after being harassed repeatedly, especially on the school bus.
The Sioux City district plans to show the film at schools, incorporating a curriculum now under development, said spokeswoman Alison Benson. Other Iowa districts are weighing use of the film as a teaching tool.
The film follows the stories of five bullying victims. “Bully” shows Alex Libby, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, when he was a seventh-grader at Sioux City East Middle School. The filmmakers recorded a student smashing Alex’s head into a bus seat in 2009.
The documentary shows Alex’s mother, Jackie Libby, telling school officials: “He is not safe on that bus.”
It also portrays Sioux City officials as downplaying the threat.
“I’ve been on that bus,” a school assistant principal responds. “They are just as good as gold.”
The Libby family has since moved to Oklahoma.
Benson said the Sioux City district has been a national leader in the fight against bullying. But, she added, “You cannot say bullying doesn’t exist in schools.”
“We knew something might come up,” Benson said of the production crews’ visits to three Sioux City schools. “But we thought it was more important to have the conversation nationally about bullying than to worry about what might be filmed.”
That’s why the district is looking to arrange viewings at schools.
“Children need to have a deep conversation,” Benson said. “It’s a community-based issue. Any school that shows this film should talk with the children about what they saw and what they can do.”
The movie, directed by Lee Hirsch, originally received an “R” rating for profanity, leading to petition drives and appeals by Hollywood stars. Now it’s unrated, but that means many chain movie theaters won’t show it.
The trailer says 13 million kids will be bullied in the United States this year.
“The problem is real,” the narrator says. “The problem is being ignored.”
The film shows parents in various school districts pleading for their children’s safety, and officials making assurances that all is OK.
“Kids will be kids. Boys will be boys. They are just cruel at this age,” an official says. A parent describes a student getting punched, strangled and sat on. The film shows some of this.
Benson has seen the documentary three times, but won’t comment on whether she considers it fair to Sioux City’s schools. A special screening there Nov. 1 drew 1,600 people.
No release planned in Iowa for a while
It was unclear Friday when the movie will next be shown in Iowa. Fleur Cinema general manager John Peterson said the Des Moines theater hopes to show the film if it’s offered.
“If I had to take a guess today, I would say Des Moines might get it in late April or early May,” Peterson said.
If the film’s box office results are huge this weekend, the Weinstein Co. may want to expand the film to 800 screens quickly, Peterson said. If not, it may hit only 20 theaters.
Peterson said the ratings controversy has spurred interest, and he has received quite a few phone calls and emails asking about the film.
The Varsity Theater in Des Moines also hopes to show the film, said owner Denise Mahon.
The Sioux City district worked with Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in South Dakota for 12 years on anti-bullying efforts, receiving a prize from the institute recently.
As part of the effort, the district hosted Kirk and Laura Smalley, parents of 11-year-old Ty Field, another of the five bullying victims featured in the film. The Oklahoma boy shot himself after he was bullied. Two of the five students featured in the film killed themselves.
A boy had bullied Ty his entire sixth-grade year. As the school year wound down in 2010, the bully picked on Ty, who was sitting on bleachers with friends before school, according to media reports. Ty shoved back and got suspended.
His mother took him home and told him to do his chores and homework.
Instead, the boy took a .22-caliber pistol into his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head.
The grieving parents formed Stand for the Silent to battle bullying.
State law requires reports on bullying
The Iowa Legislature in 2007 passed a law that requires districts to report bullying and what action was taken.
Bryce Amos, Des Moines schools’ executive director for learning services and secondary schools, said the district has no plans to use the documentary, but thought its distribution could help.
“The more people are aware of what’s going on, and how it can hurt kids, the better for us,” he said.
The district investigates all allegations of bullying, he said. In extreme cases, bullies are suspended. In fewer than 10 cases in the past four years, bullies have been reassigned to a different school, he said.
Des Moines, which has a middle school and high school anti-bullying curriculum, has no plans to show the film, but officials hope students, parents and others will be able to see the film locally, said district spokesman Phil Roeder.
Students at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines last month produced their own short films and public service announcements on how to handle bullying, Roeder said.
West Des Moines schools don’t plan to show the documentary this year, but might next year after reviewing the content, said spokeswoman Lauri Pyatt.
Mom: Film’s director feared for son’s safety
Jackie Libby recalls that she and her husband, Philip, once found their son Alex passed out in the front yard of their Sioux City home.
“He said some boys were slamming his head into a seat on the bus,” Jackie said. “We thought he made it up.”
Then Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary “Bully,” showed them a few seconds of footage showing Alex being assaulted by other students. “He feared for Alex’s safety,” Jackie said.
They learned that Alex had interrupted a school bus ride to tell a fellow student he hoped to be friends. The classmate not only firmly declined the invitation but also told Alex he would kill him with a knife and assault him with a broom handle, Jackie said in an interview Friday.
“He was assaulted every day,” and the Sioux City district didn’t do enough to stop it, Libby said from the family’s new home in Edmond, Okla.
“Bully,” released on Friday, shows a student slamming Alex’s head into a bus seat. The family asked for the school district’s camera footage from the bus and were told the camera wasn’t working. But a camera installed by the producers of “Bully” caught the whole thing.
“When we looked back on it, we just made so many mistakes because we didn’t know what was going on,” Jackie said. “We thought he was coming into being a teenager. We thought he was being mouthy and secretive and rebellious, but really he was just trying to cover up what was happening in school because he was embarrassed.”
Alex’s grades fell from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. He switched schools last fall in Sioux City, partway through his freshman year, and things were better, Jackie said. But the family still decided it was time to leave.
He has not faced abuse in Oklahoma, where school officials take a hard-line stance, she said, and his grades have skyrocketed.
At Sioux City, “We were treated like they wanted us to go away,” Jackie said. “They treated us like it wasn’t a problem. They wanted us to go somewhere else.”
Eventually, Alex told his parents the abuse had been going on since the beginning of sixth grade. His Asperger’s syndrome made it tough on him socially, his mother said.
Jackie said millions of children are being bullied, and their parents often don’t know. She hopes the documentary helps. “My son was assaulted every day,” Jackie said. “And we sent him into that. We felt horrible.”
Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman, who wasn’t available Friday, has shared statistics showing students in the district who witness bullying are now more likely to intervene.
“I am proud of our efforts,” he writes on the district’s website. “I am proud of our team’s willingness to do the work, and I welcome the conversation about where we have found success and where we can grow even stronger for each and every student.”