Battling the Bully

Looking Beyond the Upcoming “Bully” Documentary, Dr. Rona Novick Offers Another View of Bullying

I haven’t yet seen the much anticipated and publicized soon-to-be-released “Bully” movie. I am certainly pleased with the attention and awareness it has already generated, with movie stars, advocates, educators and politicians weighing in on the R rating it was given for “language.” When I have wondered aloud to friends and colleagues why the movie makers, hoping the film would be shown to schools and other teen or children’s groups, would include material that might be inappropriate, I’ve been told that the harsh language may be central to bullying, and removing it, bleeping it or any other editing would compromise the power of the story.

Rona Novick
Dr. Rona Novick is a clinical child psychologist and noted parenting expert.

I am very hopeful that a film that is receiving such widespread national attention will make a difference. But the conversations I am having even before seeing it are causing me some worry. I worry about what I often experience in consulting with school and parent groups that I call the “not here” phenomenon. This is the all too common denial, as I describe or discuss bullying, that such things do not happen in “our school” or are not done by “my child.”

The “Bully” movie, I would expect, likely portrays powerful examples that clearly exemplify bullying, children using harsh language, physically violent acts, emotional harassment writ large. So much of the devastating bullying I see would not play on the big screen. It is the popular girl who flicks her hair, sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes as a less popular classmate joins her lunch table, all barely noticeable by others but painfully felt by the victim. It is the overweight boy who joins the laughter of his classmates when they use the nickname “blubber” they have given him, making it appear to all that this is typical male middle school bonding. It is the subtle social machinations and undercurrents that tell students who to avoid as a social “cootie” and whose good graces to cultivate. So much of it looks fairly innocent and so much of it is complex and continuous and without understanding the larger social context it is difficult to discern. I once visited a third grade classroom and observed one girl ask another for a pencil. “Did you see that?” the astute teacher asked, “she is such a bully.” I responded that I didn’t see any evidence of bullying and the teacher enlightened me. The pencil requester is the richest girl in the class. While holding her fancy, fluffy topped pen, she asked her peer, a rather disorganized student in tattered shirt, who lives in the poorest area of town to borrow a pencil to highlight that she has nothing, and often needs to get her school supplies from class donations. What looked to me as an innocent gesture could now be seen as a cruel, deliberate and hurtful interaction.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture, because it is so specific, can make material less relatable and easier to deny. When we see images of ravished far-away lands and starving children, do we realize that within US borders, many children are malnourished and hungry? Do pictures of industrial dumping and waste prompt us to pick up the litter in our environs? I hope that this movie, in documenting evident and painful realities of bullying that translate to the big screen will help parents, educators and students become more aware. I hope it will help all of us see both the obvious and the subtle bullying that is under our noses and not see bullying as a story that happens to someone else, a tragedy “that doesn’t happen here.”

After a high-profile bully related suicide, I asked a group of middle schoolers in a faith based school if they thought this could happen in their school. Quickly and in unison they replied, “no, never, not here.” I told them, that’s exactly what the students at the school of this young suicide said until it happened to them. Bullying is in every school and every community.  Maybe not looking like it does in the movies. Maybe different from the over the top portrayals in Hollywood or in child and teen literature. It’s hidden in the social details and small comments and everyday actions that can be brutally cruel and cripplingly painful. It is time we commit our attention, our resources and our efforts to battling bullying. If we continue to say “this doesn’t happen,” if we fail to see it and if we fail to address it, we expose our children to much more danger than an R rated movie.

Watch the “Bully” trailer below:


The author, Dr. Rona Novick, is the director of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Division of Doctoral Studies at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and a senior fellow at YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership. A noted clinical child psychologist, parenting expert, author and lecturer, Novick helped develop the BRAVE bully reduction and social emotional leadership development program at YU School Partnership. Read her blog, Life’s Tool Box, a guide for parents and educators.

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