What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Can a Movie Change Everything?

When it comes to bullying, movies can be powerful, but not that powerful

In an effort to comply with new California state law to prevent bullying, school districts around the Bay Area are sending kids to see the film "Bully" and following it up with a brief discussion about the film.

The new anti-bullying legislation, dubbed "Seth's Law" after a 13 year old boy who hung himself due to anti-gay bullying at his school, is an attempt on the part of the legislature to do it's part in the effort to stop bullying and hold school districts and schools accountable for the climate their students are trying to learn in. Evidently the original bill has been watered down due to funding concerns (i.e. cost of anti-bullying programs).

While I am in full support of the actions on the part of the legislature, and I support the efforts of the school district to comply with the law, sending the kids to see a film followed by a brief discussion is not, unfortunately, enough to address the problem.

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The California Board of Education has different categories under which bullying is defined. This can range from physical and sexual abuse, such as hitting or assault, to verbal and psychological abuse, such as excluding or teasing. This definition is outstanding, and an acknowledgement that for many kids, being laughed at and called names, or being repeatedly scorned and excluded, can be as psychologically painful and damaging as being hit or spit at.

Recently, a mother with a child at school in the SFUSD was asked by a teacher if her son was "still a crybaby." Her son is a deeply sensitive child, and was already reporting to his mother that when he answered a question incorrectly in class, other kids would laugh and say "ooo shame shame!" The mother was puzzled as to how the teacher would permit such behavior on the part of other students - clearly this is not an environment that fosters creativity and learning - and when the teacher asked her about her "crybaby son" the answer to that became more clear.

In another story, the mother has the painful experience of her middle school daughter suddenly being shunned and excluded by the girls in her class who were her friends - in her friends' effort to join the "popular" crowd, they "ditched" the one who was of a different race, less conservative and more creative, the one who looked different.

These stories are common - so common that when the mother talks about it, many people respond by saying that "middle school girls are just mean - they exclude others" and "boys will be boys - they tease" or that boys who express their feelings are "bound to be called crybabies." But the truth is that kids are capable of more than that, and adults are too. When the bar for behavior is set higher, and kids are given tools and alternative ways to express themselves, it turns out that even boys and middle school girls can behave significantly differently.

For years, psychologists have been doing research on bullying. What they have found only serves to validate what parents of bullied children could have already told you: kids who are bullied suffer emotionally, psychologically, and academically, and the effects are long-lasting. But psychologists have also been researching for years programs that effectively stop bullying, and these programs work. I am sorry to report that going to see this movie (which, by the way, is incredibly painful to watch for sensitive kids and does not offer any real solution for bullying) is not on the list of effective interventions. In truth, as the example of the teacher above illustrates, it is not just the students who need to change. Like telling kids "just say no to drugs" or "just don't have sex and you won't get pregnant," having kids watch a movie and tell them to "just speak up if you see bullying," is a simple one-shot, one-line intervention that just don't give the kids the tools they need (or the credit they deserve) for changing an entire culture that supports bullying. In fact, when schools tell kids to speak up and stop bullying, they don't even stop to DEFINE the term to the kids so that kids are aware that teasing, excluding, ridiculing, and other forms of verbal and psychological behavior is, in fact, bullying. This alone could stop some of the bullying behavior. And schools abdicate responsibility by placing the burdens on the kids.

I understand that effective bullying programs may cost money to implement. They are also a huge commitment for the school - the principal has to become 100% committed to changing the culture of the school, the teachers have to go through trainings and personal transformation, and then all of this has to translate to a cultural change in the school, which takes the form of a facilitated, regular part of the curriculum. The school doesn't have to figure out how to do it - there are programs in existence that have proven effectiveness. But the school, and school district, and ultimately the parents, have to be willing to do what it takes to make the program happen.

We live in a time when education is not valued by our society. We have chosen to place prisons, war, and pensions, among countless other things, above education. The wealthy who make the decisions don't mind so much - if they can lock up prisoners and keep our borders secure, they can send their kids to private school and keep them safe. But the cost of an uneducated society is high for all of us. Thomas Jefferson warned that a true democracy cannot exist unless the voters are educated, and this is clear every day. And while we can try to keep locking people up, those who suffer from a lack of education and opportunity have swelled beyond the capacity of what the prisons can bear. And in truth, parents from private schools report that bullying happens at their schools as well. Bulling is a problem in society at every level.

And so, the discussion of where to spend the precious few dollars at a school causes anti-bullying measures to fall to the bottom. But I am here to argue that it should move up to the top of the list of priorities. Because an environment that nurtures it's students and teaches them how to honor each other, respect each other, communicate effectively, and be responsible and accountable, creates not only an environment where students can truly learn, but also where good citizens and future leaders are made.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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