- - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

You can laugh at nutty right-wingers who home-school their kids because they don’t want them to learn about evolution; you can sneer at dirty hippies who unschool their kids at home because they can’t be tied to the Man’s curriculum, man. Laugh and sneer all you want, but those home-schooled and unschooled kids are not being hounded to death — literally, in a case documented on-screen in “Bully” — by their peers.

I have an 8-year-old child, and I can say that watching this documentary about bullying in schools was more viscerally disturbing than sitting through almost any horror movie I can think of.

Horror movies generally try to scare you with hyperbolic blood and guts, or at least with the intimation of larger-than-life evil. “Bully,” on the other hand, is stomach-churning because it’s so cravenly insignificant.

In Lee Hirsch’s documentary — recut to earn a PG-13 rating and opening nationally on Friday — kids poke 14-year-old Alex with pencils on the bus; classmates refuse to sit by 16-year-old Kelby; 17-year-old Tyler Long has his clothes stolen while he showers so he has to walk across the gym naked. Students idly fantasize about cutting each other’s faces off and call each other “bitch” or “faggot” (at least in the film’s original version, which was rated R largely because of such language).

It’s all little squabbles that administrators can dismiss as kids being kids. And it is kids being kids — but one potential thing kids do when they’re being kids is torment each other so viciously that somebody like Tyler feels he has no recourse but to hang himself in his closet.

The fact that those who are bullied have no recourse is, of course, why the endless stream of petty stuff becomes insupportable. Tyler felt he had no way out — and he had a point.

Administrators at Tyler’s school failed over and over to prevent the attacks on him; school officials even fail to show up at a town meeting discussing the tragedy after Tyler’s death.

Parents, too, often seem stymied. In an extremely painful scene, Alex’s father interrogates him about the abuse he suffers on the bus, telling him that if he doesn’t stand up for himself, his younger sister will be singled out next. His sister then tells Alex that kids already pick on her because of him. So imagine you are 13 years old and your father tells you that because you get beaten up you’re putting your beloved sister in danger. If you can’t fight back effectively, what do you do?

Alex doesn’t kill himself, luckily. The filmmakers give parents and teachers videotaped evidence of Alex being bullied. As a result, everyone involved starts to take what seem to be more effective steps to protect him.

Unfortunately, providing private video crews for every bullied child in the country is not a practical solution. Instead, the film focuses on raising awareness. “Bully” is connected to a movement called the Bully Project, which tries to spread the word about the dangers of bullying through rallies and educational outreach. At the conclusion of the movie, Tyler’s father and others who have lost children through suicide caused by bullying express hope that if students know more about the dangers of bullying, they will reach out to one another. Hopefully, then fewer kids will suffer.

In the end, “Bully” essentially appeals to kids to stop hurting one another. Such efforts certainly can’t hurt. But it’s not our kids who build the schools. And if there are problems with those schools, it’s adults, not kids who need to fix them.

As to how to fix them — beats me. It seems more staff would improve things a great deal. The bullying Alex suffered every day could have been ended easily by hiring a monitor to ride the bus.

But while adding prison guards may make a prison safer, it doesn’t stop it from being a prison. It’s hard to watch “Bully” and not feel that, in some cases, kids are being tormented not in spite of their communities’ wishes, but, rather, with their complicity, whether tacit or overt. This is especially obvious in the case of Kelby, an out lesbian in Tuttle, Okla. Kelby is singled out for violence and harassment by, yes, her fellow classmates — but she’s also verbally abused by teachers and widely shunned in her town. She was kicked off the basketball team, for which she had been a star player, and was made to feel unwelcome in church and in neighbors’ homes.

In some ways, though, Kelby is oddly better off than the other bullying victims. Because of the gay rights movement, she is able to see her persecution in an explicitly political context, one that enables her to view herself not just as an isolated victim, but as someone standing up for a cause.

Buoyed by her friends and her very supportive parents, Kelby at first determines to stay in school in hopes of changing attitudes and making the school a safer place for other gay youths. When the fight becomes too much for her, though, her parents pull her from school permanently. This seems to be the right move — and it is enabled in large part by the same political awareness that made Kelby want to stay and fight. Kelby and her parents understand the violence against her as systemic and realize that minor adjustments in attitude or endless meetings with school officials are useless ultimately. The child is in danger; get her out of there.

Tyler’s father mentions toward the beginning of the film that he always knew Tyler would be victimized at some point — perhaps in part because he was on the autism spectrum (a point the film, in a poor editorial choice, fails to tell us). Still, given all the instances of bullying we see in the film, Tyler’s victimization starts to seem less about one kid and more about the fact that our public schools victimize people.

Maybe, in other words, it might help our kids if we got a little more paranoid about schools. Perhaps we should at least consider the possibility that the best way to improve schools is to empty them. And if home-schooling and unschooling aren’t for you — well, Internet distance learning programs have made it easier than ever for kids to take courses at an accredited institution without leaving the house for the day.

Not everyone is going to want to have their kids learn at home, obviously. But it might help a lot if parents and kids were more aware that the option is available. The feeling of being trapped can be every bit as terrible as the actual abuse kids suffer. That’s why it’s so important to realize that students are not, in fact, trapped.

School isn’t an earthquake or a plague. It’s not an inevitable evil. You don’t have to suffer through it, or even futilely try to change it. If the choice is between quitting school and quitting your life, the choice should always, always be quitting school.

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