I spent last Friday evening thinking about bullies. I grew up scrawny and shy, so thinking about bullies at the end of my week isn’t new for me. I followed up by asking a friend to see “Bully” with me. The documentary continues at Regal’s Stadium 15 Theater at Valley River Center for at least another week.
Documentarians hope for the sort of impact that Lee Hirsch is seeing from his film. Last Sunday’s Sioux City Journal devoted its entire front page to an editorial addressing the issue. As film critic Roger Ebert noted, the film is admirably restrained. It shows you bullying and its consequences, but it doesn’t pretend to solve the problem. It describes, but doesn’t prescribe.
Not so with Gabrielle Ford, the keynote speaker for Delta Kappa Gamma’s state convention here last Friday. She had two bits of advice, borne from her own experience as a “different” child, but also buttressed from her recent years speaking out against bullying at school assemblies across the country.
First, make eye contact. A simple glance may calm a victim’s fear of being alone. Being seen can make a difference. Eye contact also can affect the bully, who also is a victim, stuck in an anger loop. More often than not, a bully learned bullying by being bullied.
Second, understand that the playground slogan about sticks and stones has the harm assessment scale exactly backwards.
“Skinned knees — even broken bones — will heal,” Ford reminded the educators. “Bruises will be forgotten. It’s the emotional abuse, the taunts — those can be harder to shake.”
Our psyches don’t heal as reliably as our skin and bones. Ford’s most lasting hurtful memories from high school involved classmates throwing paper clips at her. And laughing. She retells it plainly, “I was their entertainment.”
Feckless school administrators are caught on film in “Bully” constructing the same false hierarchy. Only physical abuse warrants their intervention. School bus drivers cannot control their passengers. If you see the film, you’ll make a visceral connection to the anarchy of adolescence if you ever rode a bus to school.
After the movie, I walked quickly to catch up to the only other person in the theater when we had walked in. “How did you pick this movie to watch on a weekday afternoon?” I asked.
“It’s an important issue, and it’s only getting worse.” Clay Robson told me. He drove in from Blue River to run errands and took the opportunity to “get informed.” Robson tried to comfort himself that the torment of being bullied wanes as we age. He was surprised by my response.
“If only!” I introduced Robson to my movie-mate for the afternoon. “Jon here serves as a Eugene Planning Commissioner. He’s seen his share of thoughtless taunts and verbal abuse.” Jon just nodded, knowing that I was saying enough or too much without his help.
We parted company agreeing that Eugene’s adults could learn some anti-bullying lessons. Sometimes Blue River is not too far from Eugene; it’s just far enough.
Eugene Planning Commission or City Council meetings can be just like those torturous school bus rides. There’s no getting out. There’s only enduring it and hoping the world comes to an end before you have to do it again.
Our school districts have strong policies against bullying. The best anti-bully curriculum was written by educators connected to the University of Oregon. Scott Ross, Rob Horner and Bruce Stiller collaborated to produce “Bully Prevention in Positive Behavior Support.” It has colorful illustrations throughout for children and five pages of academic citations at the end for adults.
I honestly wish that Ross, Horner and Stiller would “translate” their guide to address adult behaviors. And then I wish Eugene would adopt a policy to address the issue as forcefully as our schools have. Bullying should be banned from all public hearings that solicit citizens’ comments.
There’s an alarming connection between bullying and teen suicides. I’m glad we’re finally hearing the alarm.
But how many local leaders have decided they would rather commit political suicide than continue to endure the sorts of abuse some of our citizens feel entitled to hurl at them?
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. The bully prevention manual mentioned can be downloaded here: http://www.pbis.org/common/pbisresources/publications/bullyprevention_ES.pdf