'Bully' is springboard for hopeful discussion
The documentary film explores bullying in several small towns.
An estimated 3.7 million students engage in bullying in schools throughout the United States. They target 3.2 million fellow students who are victims of moderate to serious bullying.
"If we could all follow the Golden Rule, we wouldn't need bullying prevention. But we are not in that place. We are at a place where kids need help knowing how to treat one another," says Dr. Deborah Kipps-Vaughan, assistant professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University. The supervisor of psychological services for Halifax County Public Schools before joining the JMU faculty, she knows first hand the dangers of bullying.
"Kids are much more resilient than we are as adults, but at the same time, because peer acceptance is so, so important, things that we might as adults want them to blow off, hurt," Kipps-Vaughan said. "Kids ruminate about it and damage starts really being done to their self-esteem."
Such an important and complex topic demands the serious attention several JMU faculty members and organizations and community partners are focusing on bullying in schools. Their message combines increasing awareness of the national problem and offering solutions and hope.
What began as one faculty member's desire to show the documentary film "Bully" to one of her classes in the spring semester has emerged as an opportunity to introduce more people to the film and to encourage local discussions about bullying in schools.
As she was arranging to show "Bully" at JMU, Dr. Katie Tricarico, assistant professor of early, elementary and reading education, realized she would need financial support to make the event happen. Before the end of fall semester, she had a multitude of partners – JMU's College of Education, Department of Early, Elementary and Reading Education, School Psychology Program, LGBT and Ally Education Program, Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, Madison Equality, Eastern Mennonite University's education department and Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
"Bully" will be shown Jan. 29 and 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Memorial Hall. Admission is free and open to the public. Additional showings are scheduled Jan. 29 for teachers and administrators in the Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
The film looks at bullying in several small towns and mainly follows the story of one boy, Tricarico explains. "The film is hard to watch. There are no solutions offered. It's a really raw look at what's happening.
"After you watch something like that, you need to be able to debrief and process and talk about what we can do as a community. That's why we're having a panel discussion among faculty and community representatives."
Kipps-Vaughan, who will be on the panel at the Jan. 29 film showing, wants people to know they can help with bullying prevention. As she teaches in graduate-level school psychology classes, people can recognize bullying and react appropriately to it.
"You don't hear much about it, but a key element to understanding bullying is the bully/victim," Kipps-Vaughan said. "That's the individual that has had negative interpersonal experiences, which is always hard as a kid, has usually a more acceptable attitude toward hostile behavior or aggression and has less regard for conventional rules."
"This understanding can help us recognize kids that need our attention, and then there are ways to try and work with their thinking and attitudes. Cognitive behavioral work through some counseling, for instance."
Once bullying behavior is identified, Kipps-Vaughan stresses that a comprehensive, on-the-spot response is necessary.
"Whenever we see bullying happen, we should stop it right away, name the behavior – call it 'bullying.' That's some of the problem is we don't call things bullying that are bullying. So imbedded in this piece about naming is we have to be clear about the definition of 'bullying.' It is an act with harmful intention, it is a repeated act and there is some imbalance of power, such as size or social status."
Further critical parts to the comprehensive response are immediate consequences for the bullying behavior and support for the victim. "You have to do all the parts," Kipps-Vaughan said.
To help prevent bullying, the psychologist advocates that teachers in the elementary grades hold weekly meetings within their classrooms to talk about "pro-social" topics and to consider how the class members, as a group of citizens, are treating one another.
Both Kipps-Vaughan and Tricarico hope the showing and discussion of "Bully" will generate ongoing consideration of remedies for the national problem. "Teachers and administrators have a lot more power to help than I think we realize," Tricarico said. "That's the message I want to show my pre-service teachers."
# # #
Jan. 23, 2013