How To Stop a Bully

Even as the Harvey Weinstein-produced film Bully falls flat, Jewish schools are trying new programs that do more than simply raise awareness

The documentary Bully opened nationwide on Friday. Critics raved. But while its intentions are good, Bully is a lousy movie.

First off, it’s torture porn. The movie revels in scenes of violence: a kid getting punched in the head and stabbed with a pencil, a parent tearfully telling the camera about finding her child hanging lifeless in a closet, a bullied girl caught in grainy camera footage aiming her mother’s gun at her fellow school-bus riders. You’d never know from watching the film that experts agree that physical bullying is by far the least common form of bullying.

But the real problem is that the film, produced by Harvey Weinstein, offers no solutions. Oh, sure, there are homilies like “be the change” and a final montage—set to the inevitable swelling music—of candlelit vigils where kids pledge their anti-bullying fealty (I’m sorry, is anyone actually pro-bullying?) and release environmentally unfriendly balloons in memory of kids who’ve committed suicide. But as my own 10-year-old observed, “This is like those breast cancer people who say they’re raising awareness … but how is that doing anything to fix the problem?”

Bullying is a wildly trendy topic right now, and the efforts to “raise awareness” are nearly as pervasive as breast cancer’s pink ribbons. Ninety-two anti-bullying books were published in 2011 (not including specialized-education titles); 35 have come out in 2012 so far. And that doesn’t even account for the apps, gadgets, websites, and musical theater productions on the subject. Bully feels like just another part of this zeitgeist-y trend—a somber, self-important, self-promoting tone standing in for real commitment to the difficult work of edification. The reductive nature of the movie is embodied by the cartoon villain of a school administrator, a vile, clueless, smirking, smarmy idiot who tells parents she can’t guarantee their son’s safety on the bus, then assures them that the victimizers “are just as good as gold.” The film is all black-and-white, heroes and villains, It Gets Better-style platitudes … and no information whatsoever on how to make it better.

But there are ways to make it better, even if the movie opts not to discuss them. Researchers and educators who focus on bullying in schools have devised programs to tackle the problem, and certain approaches really do seem to make a difference. They work for schools—not just poor, isolated, rural schools like the ones in the movie, but upper-middle-class schools, and Jewish day schools, too.

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To be fair to Bully director Lee Hirsch, doing the real making-it-better work is hard. Rona Novick, director of the doctoral program at the Azrieli School of Education at Yeshiva University and a clinical psychologist who co-developed the BRAVE bullying-prevention program, told me: “Here’s the humbling fact: The most demonstrably powerful program was instituted in Norway and achieved a 50 percent reduction in bullying. No other program has come close to that. The good programs in the U.S. get about a 20 to 30 percent reduction in bullying.”

Part of the problem, experts say, is that we throw anti-bullying rhetoric and policies (and pledges and statues and rallies) around like confetti, but we don’t address the larger cultural issues that allow bullying to take root. “We struggle in this country to get social and emotional learning the same attention, time, and effort as academics,” Novick said. “And there’s social exclusion and bullying among adults, so to expect that kids will be better at this than grown-ups are is downright foolish.”

The movie, with its endless shots of waving fields of wheat, smoke-spewing factories, and desolate railroad tracks, makes bullying look like a backwoods poor-people problem, like bad teeth. In reality, of course, bullying is everywhere, and in fact, wealthier urban and suburban private schools are, in some ways, less equipped to handle it.

“Public school by its nature can propose that it is democratic,” Novick pointed out. “Everyone is a taxpayer. But in private schools and Jewish day schools, you have to ask, ‘Are we really effective at conveying that every person here has equal value?’ Do kids at the school say, ‘You can’t do anything to me; my daddy’s name is on this building!’ Does the rabbi’s kid get in trouble? You can have massive imbalances of power.”

True that. But for my daughter and me, the biggest flaw in the movie was that it turns bullies into The Other. (In fact, the film doesn’t talk to any; they’re faceless, invisible monsters.) Real life is subtler; kids know that bullies can be popular and charming. And experts know that the roles of bully and victim can be fluid. “The movie’s exposé format oversimplifies a complicated problem,” said Yoni Schwab, an expert on fostering positive social-emotional and character development in children, a consultant to Parents magazine, and a psychologist in private practice and at the Windward School. “Many bullies are also victimized. It’s a cycle. You get bullied in 6th grade, and then when you’re in 8th grade, you bully the 6th graders.” (Or, as my daughter Josie put it, “Maybe the bully is being beaten up by his big brother. Or maybe he feels like he doesn’t have any power. You have to think about why people are bullies to be able to help them stop.”)

Demonizing bullies is dangerous on a number of levels. (And here’s where I’ll civilly say that I disagree with my esteemed colleague Liel Leibovitz: The aim of social and emotional learning is not to make kids “preternaturally nice”; all bullies are not irredeemable; bullies aren’t exclusively hitters, and hitting back isn’t always the answer.) Pledges and zero-tolerance policies, wherein we ban the bully from our midst like a goat sent into the wilderness, sound great but do more harm than good. They let us pass the buck without helping the bully change. “Saying we have zero tolerance for bullies makes no sense, any more than saying we have zero tolerance for non-readers makes sense,” Novick said. “Illiteracy is an educational opportunity, and so is bullying. No assembly, movie, or mandate will make kids into readers; what makes kids into readers is the long, hard, and rewarding process of education. And that’s what will make schools bully-resistant: teaching values and the value of human beings, teaching the skills of social discourse and disagreement.” (Besides, there’s zero evidence that zero-tolerance policies are a deterrent.)

So, what can we do to stop bullying? We have to focus on the whole school culture. “Ultimately, the direction of the field isn’t in addressing bullying per se, but to look at the framework of a school in terms of their entire social and emotional learning program,” or SEL, Schwab said. “Just as you teach math and reading, step by step and through review, you need to be doing the same thing for social and emotional skills in school. SEL is a mandated part of the curriculum in about 20 states. And research indicates that not only do kids behave better and grow up more secure and healthy, but they end up achieving better.” Novick concurred: “There’s compelling data that the schools who do this well offer lifelong benefits. The kids are less likely to have truancy issues, to abuse drugs, to make high-risk choices in high school. They’re more upstanding citizens throughout their lives.”

Our other task is to empower bystanders to stand up to bullies. But we can’t expect them to do it in a vacuum. (You see that in the movie, when an entire school bus full of children, plus the bus driver, ignore or mock the boy being pounded on.) We need to create an environment in which kids have the support to speak up and the expectation that kindness is standard operating procedure. “The school-wide programs that work are effective on multiple levels,” Novick said. “The theory is that one has to get bystanders to send a message through the peer culture that bullying isn’t acceptable; they can take the bullies down a notch from their power base. But you can’t get them to do it if they’re surrounded by a culture of adults that aren’t caring bystanders. We need shared responsibility: We make this place. You need rules and consequences, and that’s a schoolwide thing.”

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Despite our notions of Jewish kids being smart and intellectual, bullying can be as prevalent in Jewish schools as anywhere else. I have friends who’ve pulled their kids out of Jewish day schools that valued achievement over kindness, where students and teachers alike conveyed disgust for kids with dyslexia, Asperger’s, sensory processing issues, or other learning differences. Jewish schools and shmancier secular schools may also have issues with girl bullying (more contextual and more insidious than the physical bullying that both the movie and my colleague Liel restrict themselves to discussing) and with bullying magnified by social media and technology.

At the same time, though, parents at upper-middle-class schools who’ve been sensitized to the trendiness of the word “bullying” and who take helicopter parenting to new heights tend to see all teasing as bullying. “There’s a difference,” one parenting expert told me, “but oversensitive parents tend to call about every little unkindness. Sometimes the school is right to tell parents to back off, which can be tough for upper-middle-class parents to hear. But intervening all the time can really hurt kids in the long run; ultimately, kids feel good about handling their own problems, and if we undermine them and give them the message that they can’t handle things, we’re not doing them any favors.”

Some Jewish schools are tackling the problem thoughtfully. SAR Academy, for instance, a Jewish day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, has recently started using Social Decision Making, a research-based program by anti-bullying expert Maurice Elias; the school has already seen a reduction in bullying and teasing. Around 20 Jewish schools use Novick’s BRAVE program.

But it can be challenging to prove to Jewish parents that they’re sacrificing something valuable on the altar of achievement. “What’s more important: Being a mensch or getting into an Ivy League college?” Schwab asked. “Some Jewish schools need to stand up to parents more and say, ‘We’ll prepare them for college, but first we‘re going to make them mensches. We need to put derekh eretz first, and then academics.’ Schools have to engage the parents, teachers, and the board—everyone needs to be on the same page.”

Lest we feel too hopeless, Novick pointed out that in some ways, our people are ahead of the game. “We have our Jewish masoret [tradition] about being upstanding bystanders on a humanitarian and individual level; there have been so many individual Jews who’ve made a difference by not standing idly by while people are tormented. I think it’s in our religious heritage because we know all too well what it feels like to be victims. But the fact that something’s in our genotype doesn’t mean it’s always being expressed in the phenotype. We have a long way to go to make it part of our children’s being that they can’t stand by and watch another person suffer.” On screen, or in life.

While Bully doesn’t offer a lot of useful, concrete solutions, other resources do.

• Dr. Michele Borba, my favorite parenting expert, offers strategies parents can share with kids to help them speak up when other kids are being mean, as well as a fascinating Dateline segment actually showing how one “cool” kid can have an impact by sticking up for a nerdy kid.

Here’s where you can learn what to do when your daughter is dealing with mean girls.

Here’s how to recognize your own kid’s bullying tendencies.

• Give your 3rd- through 6th-grader the new novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio, the best kids’ book about bullying I’ve ever read. Unlike the movie, the novel shows how hard it is to stand up to bullies, how seductive a bully can be, and how challenging it can be to change from being a bystander to being an ally. The story of a boy with facial deformities in an elite prep school, it’s moving, funny, a very quick read, and a great book for parents to discuss with kids. The portrayal of a cultured, well-off mother who couches her bullying in false concern for others should make many parents squirm.

Teaching Tolerance is a terrific organization that offers a magazine and teaching kits free to teachers. Its website has tons of resources on being kind. Teaching Tolerance is perhaps best-known for Mix It Up At Lunch Day, an event in which thousands of schools participate, when kids are encouraged to sit with people they don’t usually sit with in the cafeteria. You’d be surprised at the impact mixing up the usual groups can have.

Lastly, there is one useful piece of information connected to the documentary. On the vast and mostly unhelpful Bully website is a section called Creating Just and Caring Communities: A Road Map for Parents, created by the Bullying Prevention Initiative at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. (It’s in PDF form, and hard to find on the flash-heavy site, but go to Download Tool Kits for Parents and you’ll find it.) The upshot: Parents need to stop obsessing about our kids’ own self-esteem and happiness, and focus on their concern for others (a counterintuitive notion for many parents today). “It means encouraging our children to give other children credit for their achievements, requiring children to be respectful of others even when they’re preoccupied, and letting our children know when they’re not listening to others or dominating the airwaves in conversations,” the Harvardians say. Parents need to set expectations that kids will do chores and be kind as a matter of course, not as something we applaud. We need to insist that our kids be nice even to dorky kids. We need to teach them to respect difference. We need to point out examples of injustice and unfairness in the news. And I loved this little nugget: “Almost all parents think they’re good role models for their kids. But often as parents we are very focused on our own children, and we don’t model concern for other people’s children. Many parents, for example, want children with behavior problems or special needs removed from a classroom because those children are interfering with their children’s learning. Our children are not likely to develop respect and concern for others who are struggling if we don’t model this concern.”

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