Sioux City school has role in documentary on bullying
Though district is praised for anti-bullying efforts, the issue still persists
by Rehka Basu - 8 March, 2012
The magnitude and consequences of bullying in schools is finally getting the national attention it deserves, with a soon-to-be released documentary that offers a powerful testimonial to how children’s lives can be forever damaged by it. An Iowa school district takes center stage — both as an example of getting it right, and getting it wrong.
“Bully” is set to open nationally at the end of this month. When filmmaker Lee Hirsch embarked on it as part of the Bully Project, a campaign he partnered on with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in South Dakota, the institute directed him to the Sioux City school district. It was offered as an example of a proactive district, compared to the others he featured that weren’t addressing the problem.
The Waitt Institute and the Sioux City district have been involved in a 12-year-old pilot anti-bullying project. The school district granted Hirsch full access to film in its schools, school buses and at meetings.
But when you pull back the curtain to let the sunlight in, sometimes you find things you didn’t expect. Hirsch found Alex Libby, a seventh grader at Sioux City East Middle School being relentlessly harassed, verbally and physically every day, on the school bus and at school. Alex, who has Aspergers Syndrome, never told his parents until after it was captured on film in 2009.
In the movie, Sioux City school officials and teachers are shown responding to the situation in ways that appear to downplay it, according to some familiar with the film. One Iowan who saw it at a film festival in Missouri, called the officials’ response a “jaw-dropping laissez-faire attitude” that provoked gasps and even laughter in the audience.
That’s obviously not the way Sioux City school district officials had hoped to come across. “There are places where it is not as flattering as we may have expected going in,” acknowledged Superintendent Paul Gausman, who also rued that, “In Sioux City they glommed on to a single student.”
Asked if school officials were indifferent, he said that was “in the eye of the beholder.”
“We would play some things differently,” he said. “But the bigger picture is, we’re willing to engage in this (dialogue).”
I asked Gausman how Alex’s bullies could get away with what they did and no one intervened, given the district’s bullying prevention efforts. He said the anti-bullying curriculum for middle schools had just been launched when the filmmakers came in.
Sioux City is the first district in the country to have an anti-bullying policy for employees as well as for students, according to Gausman. He says a five-year assessment released this week shows students who witness bullying are now more likely to intervene. The Sioux City Journal reported that in response to the film the district also added more cameras and microphones on buses, which are randomly reviewed. And this week, the Waitt Institute announced it will honor the school district’s bullying prevention efforts with a “Lighting the Way” award.
The school district took part in a community-wide screening of the film at a Sioux City theater in November, attended by 1,600. But this week it was again on the defensive because of a decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to give “Bully” an R rating, and Gausman’s response to a Journal reporter’s question about showing it in school. He said the school district would need to comply with the rating, which restrict those under 17 from seeing it, but he later said the district could seek permission from parents to have their children see it if they chose to screen it in school.
That generated anger in the community, though Gausman said he hadn’t made any decision on showing it, and at this point, he has no film to even show. “It just blew up,” said Alison Benson, the district’s communications director. “People are angry that, ‘Why can’t my child see this?’ Why would we allow them to see our dirty laundry and then not show it?”
The R rating was imposed because of swear words used by students — hardly surprising since they’re bullies. So middle and high school students can hear such language in schools, but not, ironically, to watch a documentary intended to fight bullying.
The rating decision, opposed by the film’s producers, has become the subject of a national petition drive, garnering more than 210,000 signatures.
Alex Libby and his family have since moved to Oklahoma, where they’re involved in anti-bullying efforts, according to Gausman. Some other bullying victims don’t make it out alive. Alex’s mother, Jackie Libby, told the Journal she remains upset at how the school district handled her son’s bullying. Her message to parents is to intervene on behalf of their children, all the way to the school board, if necessary.
Gausman calls the movie “extraordinarily impactful,” and says, “This is one of the most important topics of the day. Every school district deals with this. We decided we could become unique if we could find ways to prevent it.”
Still, this is a cautionary tale, both because of the seriousness of bullying and because even the most progressive policies and trainings mean nothing if the rules are not enforced.