Salt Lake City students watch, reflect on 'Bully'
The film begins with home video of a small boy, playfully pushing his face into a camera lens, sticking out his tongue and laughing.
The picture then switches to his father, silently looking into a different camera years later, his eyes glassy with tears. His son, the little boy making faces, died by suicide as a teenager after being bullied at school.
"I think he got to a point," his grieving father says, "where enough was enough."
It's a scene about 12,500 Salt Lake City and Park City school district students will see over the next couple weeks as they fill Utah movie theaters for the documentary "Bully," a sometimes gritty and shocking look at bullying in schools. Screenings began this week for students in the Salt Lake City District, some of whom are also participating in question and answer sessions with Alex Libby, one of the students bullied in the film.
On Wednesday, students from Bryant Middle School traveled downtown to the event that was put on through a partnership between the Utah Film Center, the Salt Lake district and JPMorgan Chase.
For nearly two hours, hundreds of normally chatty 12- and 13-year olds sat silently, engrossed in the film.
They watched a husband whisper to his wife, paralyzed with grief, that they had to tuck their baby in one last time as they walked to his funeral. Their son killed himself after being bullied.
They listened as a lesbian teenager described her own suicide attempts after being ostracized by her peers. They saw the story unfold of a bullied girl who ended up spending time in juvenile detention after she pulled a gun on her school-bus attackers.
And the audience watched kids at Libby's Iowa school stab him with pencils, slam his head against a bus seat and punch him, all while hurling profanity and names at him.
"It was kind of sad how they picked on the kids," said Bryant eighth-grader Frank Maka, 13, after watching the film. "It was a good way of teaching kids that bullying can affect kids for the rest of their lives and sometimes hurt them so much they attempt suicide."
The film presents a brutal picture of what goes on at some schools, but Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke said that's what makes it effective for kids. Luke helped bring the event to Salt Lake City after a neighbor contacted him about a child being bullied at Highland High.
The PG-13 film students watched Wednesday included profanity and at least one graphic description of a suicide.
"There have been some questions about how maybe it's a little too raw, how maybe kids aren't mature enough to see it," Luke said, "but this is what they deal with every day."
Parents had to sign permission slips in order for their middle and high school students to attend. Students will also discuss the film with teachers in their classrooms. Luke said the city has started a coalition of community groups who will aim to continue educating the public about bullying.
After the film, about a half-dozen students rose to ask questions of Libby, now 15, who traveled to Utah with his mom.
The Salt Lake City kids asked Libby how the bullying affected him, how his life is now and whether he ever contemplated suicide. Libby said he never considered suicide and now leads a happy, friend-filled life.
He was also asked how he would recommend kids deal with bullying.
"Don't do what I did," Libby told the students. He said that he didn't want to burden his mother by telling her about the bullying, and he initially thought if he ignored it or laughed it off, it would go away. It didn't.
"Tell someone about it. Stay strong because you're awesome just the way you are," Libby said.
Libby's mother, Jackie Libby, said not all educators will turn a blind eye to such abuse, as many did at Libby's former school.
Bryant principal Frances P. Battle rose at the end of Wednesday's event to confirm to students that they all deserve to feel safe at school.
"All of us are going to do better," Battle said, "and there will be no tolerance of bullying."
Walking out of the dark theater, 13-year-old Bree Hurley said she's never been bullied, but she's seen it happen. She said as a bystander, she's often been afraid to speak out.
She said the movie changed her thoughts about that.
"I think," Hurley said, "I would probably tell someone."