Lee Hirsch didn’t need to create a documentary to learn the impact bullying can have adolescents.
Hirsch already had first hand knowledge of the suffering the subjects in his documentary “Bully” were going through. Hirsch was also bullied as youth and had a hard time finding people to help him.
“I made this movie to really give this to everyone who goes through this experience so you don’t feel like you’re alone and you feel courage and feel connected,” Hirsch said Friday during a panel discussion at the in Pelham. “Because when you think about the number it’s insane. Thirteen million kids (are bullied) each year,160,000 kids are waking up everyday going ‘my stomach, something is really wrong, I can’t go to school.’ What’s going on is that they’re terrified to go to school.”
The panel took place after the film’s opening at the Picture House. The viewing was virtually full and the crowd’s composition ranged from parents to students.
Other members state Senator Jeffrey Klein, D-Bronx/Westchester; Tanya Wilson, principal of ; Susan Gilbert, principal of Siwanoy Elementary School; Roseanne Martinez, a counselor at the Pelham Guidance Council; and Roberta Barnett, a graduating senior at . The forum was moderated by Sharon Charles, the Margaret’s Place counselor at .
Hirsch’s documentary give insight into the lives of Alex, a student in Iowa; Tyler Long, a student in Georgia who took his own life after enduring years of bullying from classmates; Ja’Meya Jackson, a student in Mississippi who became so frustrated she brought a gun with her on a crowded school bus; and Kelby Johnson, a student in Oklahoma who faces harassment after coming out as gay.
The film also chronicles the aftermath brought on by the suicide of two other students who faced of constant bullying.
Hirsch said the issues of bullying can’t be solved through disciplinary action. He said it is also important for school officials to identify the attitudes that influence the behaviors in their buildings.
“The question is what is the school climate,” Hirsch said. “What are the cultures that we’re building and creating and sustaining with in our schools, because there are schools that can have the same exact policies and in one school, there’s a culture of kindness and in another there’s a culture of cruelty.”
Klein mentioned that the “Dignity for All Students Act,” the state’s anti-bullying which goes into effect next month, does not address cyber-bullying. He has co-sponsored a bill which will add more teeth to anti-cyberbullying laws.
Klein has also created a cyberbullying census, an anonymous survey for students to fill that will let lawmakers the impact it has had in their lives. As of Friday, Klein said 8,000 youth had responded to the survey and he is hopeful the survey will hit the 10,000 mark by the end of this month.
Klein called Hirsch’s film powerful. He also praised the Pelham school district for taking a proactive role in addressing bullying.
“The Pelham school district is not one of the school districts that has been sweeping this problem under the rug,” Klein said. “They’ve been out there and they’ve acknowledged time and time again that this is a problem.”
Although representative from Pelham schools said bullying isn’t a huge problem in the district, they did acknowledge that it happens.
“Although bullying happens, because it happens in almost every community, there is a great infrastructure in place (in Pelham) to help stop it,” Barnett said.
Barnett said most instances of bullying at the high school are non-physical and not obvious, which makes it tricky to address.
“But I don’t think it’s tolerated by the majority of students as something that is acceptable, because there is a lot of messaging in the Pelham schools, and there has been for many years, that it is not OK,” Barnett said. “You’ll hear people say ‘that’s not OK to say and I think that’s a great thing that happens in the high school.”
Wilson said the movie moved here as a principal and as a parent.
Charles said she gave movie tickets to kids that she deals with who have been bullied and kids that have a history of bullying. She also gave tickets to anyone else who has who was interested in going.
“The eighth-graders all had a dance, or else they would have been here,” Charles said. “But the sixth-graders seemed to be the ones who were dying to come.”
Joe Calvaruso, a Pelham Manor resident with two younger sisters attending Pelham Middle School, said he held an anti-bullying rally at Fairfield University, where he recently graduated from, last year. He said the movie reinforced all the things that were addressed during the rally.
“Bullying isn’t just a juvenile thing,” Calvaruso said. “It takes place across a wide span and it’s not always apparent. It’s subtle a lot of time and it eats away at a person’s self esteem.”
On June 13, there will be a wrap up discussion with Cheryl Bobe, director of the Pelham Guidance Council, following the 7:30 p.m. screening of the film. The discussion is free for anyone who purchased tickets to the film throughout the week.