A hotly debated new documentary shines a light on the bullying epidemic in America's schools. But are things any better in Britain?
The news that the presidential candidate Mitt Romney was a homophobic bully while he was at prep school couldn’t have happened at a worse time for him. It turns out that he taunted one effeminate schoolboy, repeatedly saying “attagirl” whenever he spoke in class. But even more unpleasant was the attack that he led on another boy, John Lauber, who was held down and had his blond hair cut off with scissors. Lauber has since died but here’s Romney’s apology all these years later, showing the thick-skinned insensitivity that will surely deny him the White House: “I played a lot of pranks in high school, I did some dumb things. But overall high school was a long time ago.”
The timing was bad for two reasons. First, it was the week that Barack Obama finally showed himself to be more in touch with modern sensitivities by embracing gay marriage. But this is also a time when America has begun to see that there is nothing prankish or disposable about bullying, that it is a hugely significant social phenomenon that needs our attention and, some believe, even legislation. This debate was largely sparked by a remarkable film I was shown recently which is still awaiting a British distributor. I hope it gets one as it’s a film worth seeing.
It has a simple, one-word title, Bully, and was made by the documentary film-maker Lee Hirsch, who first screened it at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 to great acclaim. In fact, wisely, bullies are not the focus of the film. Hirsch turns his camera on the targets and we see for ourselves what life is like for them.
Kelby, 16, is gay and opens her school locker to find the message: “Faggots aren’t welcome here.” Far from helping, her teachers join in the abuse and eventually her entire family is forced to leave the community. Ja’Meya, 14, finally breaks after years of harassment and carries a gun to school. She doesn’t use it but finds herself in a secure psychiatric ward facing 45 felony charges, as coldly enumerated by a tight-lipped, flinty-eyed sheriff. Two children, Ty Smalley and Tyler Long, have killed themselves, although it’s a failing that the film doesn’t fully explore; it even holds back information that might allow us to judge to what extent bullying was the cause. But there is no question they suffered. The week after Tyler hanged himself, some of his schoolmates mocked him by wearing nooses around their necks.
And then there’s Alex, 14, a sweet kid from Sioux City, Iowa, who was a premature baby and has the sort of looks — awkward glasses and slightly odd features — that immediately mark him out to be a target.
Hirsch gets some extraordinary footage on the school bus, a testament to the year he spent filming and the fact that modern children are so inured to TV cameras that they effectively forgot he was there. We witness starkly violent language (“I will f------ end you and shove a broomstick up your a---. I will cut your face off.”) which finally morphs into physical violence itself. We see Alex being repeatedly slapped and punched and then stabbed with a pencil. And what is so sad is that Alex accepts all this. “If not for them, what friends do I have?” he later asks his mother.
I spoke to Lee Hirsch and began by asking him about Mitt Romney’s outing, which at the time was still fresh news. He spoke with more regret than anger. “He should have taken this as a real presidential moment, rather than trying to squash it. He could have shown leadership. It was an opportunity for him to step up and acknowledge that bullying is not just a case of pranking and goofing around. It goes to the very heart of the conversation. We have to reframe and lay to rest the arguments that perpetuate bullying.”
It’s hardly surprising that Hirsch was himself bullied as a child. He vividly remembers being “a bullied kid, not being able to explain what was happening. I have a loving, good father – he’s just turned 93 – but his attitude was simply, ‘Toughen up!’ ” This way of thinking is often reflected in the film. “Boys will be boys. They’re cruel at this age,” one supervisor comments. “Buses are notoriously bad places for lots of boys,” says another, dismissing the assaults on Alex. (They were so unpleasant that Hirsch felt compelled to show the footage to the authorities.)
Overall, the real villains of Bully are not the bullies themselves who are, after all, children. The school authorities come across as incompetent, indifferent and cold-hearted. “She politicianed us,” Alex’s mother says, after a useless meeting with a remarkably uneducated educator.
We might like to think that things are different in Britain, but research suggests otherwise. Only last month, a study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College found that about one quarter of all schoolchildren in the UK are bullied at some point in their school lives — a figure supported by the last national Tellus Survey, which also found that fear of bullying was a serious issue for more than half of them. Many bullied children will suffer from anxiety, depression and psychosis and, according to the research, are three times more likely to self-harm. At Duke University in the United States, scientists have even blamed bullying for premature ageing – and have DNA evidence to back it up.
Last year, the NSPCC counselling service ChildLine received 31,599 contacts relating to bullying, a 26 per cent rise on 10 years ago. In more than half of these cases, the incidents took place at school, and bullying is now the second-most frequent reason why children call ChildLine (after family relationship problems).
Peter Bradley is the deputy director of Kidscape, a charity created to prevent bullying and child sexual abuse, and he confronts the issue on a daily basis: “Bullying is a way of life for many, many young people in the UK.” (I should make it clear I am a patron of Kidscape.) Bullying is not a criminal offence but section 89 of the Education and Inspections Act of 2006 states that schools “must have measures to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying amongst pupils”. Fine words, but Bradley says almost one in three schools does not tackle the problem effectively. He meets parents who have encountered exactly the same stonewalling that Alex’s mother faced. “We don’t have bullying in this school,” one was told. “It’s not possible.”
Why are children bullied? I spoke to Lauren Seager-Smith at the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which was founded by the NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau 10 years ago and which has 130 anti-bullying organisations under its umbrella, and I was depressed to hear that special-needs children have become a major target since many special schools were closed down as part of the last government’s inclusion programme. “There is a very, very high level of bullying. We have found that around eight out of 10 special-needs kids have been severely bullied within the education system.”
More generally, the same word comes up time and time again. Children are bullied because they’re different. An academic child in a non-academic school. An effeminate child. A child with ginger hair (curiously, we’re the only country in Europe where this is the case). Peter Bradley has met parents who have even gone to the lengths of elective surgery, correcting noses and, in particular, sticking-out ears, to help their children. “A child who has been severely bullied is often giving a message that he or she is vulnerable in some way.” Bradley describes these children as targets, not victims, and looking at Alex in Bully, I can see exactly what he means. If ever a child was born to be bullied, it was him.
Children come to Kidscape to learn how to assert themselves, how to look at themselves in the mirror. Many of their parents turn out to have been bullied themselves and it’s remarkable quite how devastating the effects are. “Bullying is something that touches everyone,” Lee Hirsch told me. “”It’s our very first experience of violence.” John Lauber, the boy who was Mitt Romney’s target, never forgot what happened to him. He met one of his attackers 39 years later and told him: “It was horrible… it’s something I have thought about a lot since then.” Like many people my age, I have personal experience of this, with vivid memories of Orley Farm, a prep school in north London where bullying was a way of life and where complaining about it only made you more open to victimisation. After all, it was prissy, wasn’t it, to complain that you’d been called names or given a kicking, and the private school system was designed to turn you into a man, even if he was an emotionally crippled one. It’s very strange but I can still see the boot room where I was attacked at the age of eight and can remember the boy, Duncan M, who was my aggressor. I haven’t seen him in more than 40 years. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive and his name only popped into my head as I wrote this. But it’s still there; a snapshot in my consciousness.
For five years I was teased because I was fat and stupid and bad at sport. I had a nickname so peculiarly vicious that I will not write it even now. I vividly remember always being the last boy to be chosen for school teams, waiting against the wall until – with a weary sigh – the captain called me forward. To escape being bullied I became a bully. One of the boys in Hirsch’s film is brave enough to make the same confession. I have no doubt that all this did me harm, but for me, the library became a safe haven… I escaped into books.
In some ways, for the modern child, the situation is getting worse. “Trolling” has now entered the language, with Stephen Fry, Dom Joly and Miranda Hart being celebrity victims. “If we look at old-fashioned, traditional bullying, it used to end once you got home,” Bradley says. “The trouble with cyberbullying is that it’s relentless, 24/7 and it has the potential to be fatal.” Lauren Seager-Smith agrees. “Cyber-bullying is much more complicated and very difficult to escape from. It’s changed the profile of the bully and the bullied. A bully now can be a whole group of young people, for example, when a picture is being shared. It’s also changed what it means to be a bystander.” The comments come at a time when the invidious effects of pornography on the internet are headline news, but cyberbullying is in its own way equally destructive.
And yet the overall picture is generally optimistic. Lee Hirsch has screened Bully in the White House and was delighted by the response. “I didn’t see Bully as a liberal piece of agitprop but a film that resounded with all Americans. The outcome of the movie has exceeded my greatest expectations.” As for Alex, “he’s like a rock star now. He spoke to 18,000 kids in Florida last month. I’m so proud, even as I speak to you now, I’m smiling. He was such a sad and introverted kid when we began filming.” There is talk of new legislation. Teachers and school supervisors made public apologies. And, an interesting side effect, the MPAA released the film with an R certification, simply because of some of the bad language. This of course meant the film would not be seen by the very audience that mattered most. There has been such a backlash that, according to Hirsch, the MPAA may have to rethink their entire agenda.
Here in the UK, there is also some cause for celebration. Belinda Hollows, a senior supervisor with ChildLine, says: “Children are talking about bullying more these days because, generally speaking, they feel more confident about doing so and that it’s not something they have to tolerate.” Seager-Smith agrees: “While instances of bullying have remained constant, children’s willingness to report it has changed,” she told me. “The climate is different now. Schools and teachers have got behind the view that bullying is not just a bit of banter in the playground. Years of research have shown bullying is dangerous. And we’re looked on by other nations as being the leader in this area. I’m very proud of that.”
The government has weighed in too. The first anti-bullying guidelines were issued to schools in 1994. The new ones, which look at bullying motivated by, among other things, race, homophobia and religion, have far more teeth. From this year, Ofsted is including “behaviour and safety” as one of its key criteria for inspections. “Parents can expect that an inspection of their child’s school will include an evaluation of how well the school deals with bullying,” says Fergus Crow of the Anti-Bullying Alliance. “Although this may be no more than a line in the final report, it’s a line that parents should seek out.”
Bullying will never fully go away and it would be foolish to think otherwise. There seems to be something hot-wired into children that gives them a pack mentality. You might call it the Lord of the Flies syndrome. But what has changed, undoubtedly, is our attitude to bullying. We can begin to hope that never again will we hear an educator announcing, with blithe indifference, that “boys will be boys”.