First Person

Parents, students moved by "Bully" on opening day

Castle Rock mom Angela Strickler looked around Denver’s Mayan Theater with dismay Friday night.


She and her friends bought tickets to the 7:30 showing of Bully for themselves and their kids online a week ago, figuring the movie would likely be sold out. They’d driven all the way into downtown Denver to find the theater wasn’t even half-full.

Strickler is hoping that when word gets out about how powerful the film is, more people will come.

“Anyone who has a child should be made to watch this movie,” she said, moments after the credits rolled. “It’s sad that only two theaters in the area are showing it. But I guess people just don’t want to deal with this.”

The much-acclaimed Bully, a 2011 documentary about bullying in U.S. schools, opened in Denver Friday night with a PG-13 rating, thanks to the removal of some expletives that had earlier earned it an R-rating. The R-rating would have severely limited the ability of youngsters to view the movie.

Strickler, who came with her two children, ages 8 and 11, said she would brought them to see Bully even with an R-rating. “They hear that kind of language on the bus,” she said. “We’ll talk about it afterward. I don’t want my kids living in a bubble.”

Jennifer Jorgenson, who brought her 11-year-old son, said, “I think if kids are raised well, they can filter out the language.”

Also with the group were Kresta Lancaster and her 11-year-old twin sons. The boys are all on the same soccer team, though they all go to different schools.

All the women – and their children – agreed that the evening had been well-spent, and that the movie raises all sorts of uncomfortable issues that families and schools need to address head-on.

“I think the movie made it look like bullying is just a small-town thing, but it’s so much more,” Jorgenson said. “I was the assistant to the principal in a school, and we dealt with things so much differently than the school administrators in the movie. But it’s so hard. I can see both sides of it.”

Documentary explores how bullying changes students, families’ lives

Bully follows the lives of five students who face bullying every day:

  • Two of those youngsters, 17-year-old Tyler Long of Chatsworth, Ga., and 11-year-old Ty Field-Smalley of Perkins, Okla., committed suicide, and the film follows the efforts of their parents and friends to come to terms with what happened to the boys;
  • Also profiled are 14-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is tormented, especially on the school bus, where he has been punched, strangled, poked and sat on for years;
  • 16-year-old Kelby Johnson, of Tuttle, Okla., a lesbian who has been physically and emotionally abused by both students and adults;
  • 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson, of Yazoo County, Miss., a one-time honor student who snapped one day and pulled her mom’s gun out of her backpack and threatened her tormentors on the school bus. She wound up spending months in a juvenile detention center before being released back to her mother, but avoided the felony charges that could have confronted her.

There’s no analysis of the events, and no narrator to explain what the audience is seeing. Director Lee Hirsch says that’s intentional. He’s hopeful that by leaving unsaid what sorts of psychology drive both the bullies and the bullied – and the adults who respond with varying degrees of concern – the film will serve as a starting point for conversations about bullying.

Lauren Counterman, a senior at Aurora’s Gateway High School, attended Bully at Ed News’ request to critique it and offer her observations about the film. She said that even though the schools featured in the film are far different from her diverse urban high school, the experiences and the desperation the movie portrays ring true.

“It’s very accurate as to how things are,” said Lauren, 17. “All the stories I could identify with on some level.”

Lauren, who will attend Regis University in the fall to study peace and justice, is president of Gateway’s Gay Straight Alliance. She already does a lot to promote tolerance and acceptance of those who are outside the mainstream.

But after sobbing through the movie – “I didn’t stop crying the whole way through” – she left the theater promising to do more.

“I’ll try to organize a pep rally or something,” she promised. But she’ll also change her own behavior.

“There are kids in the hallway no one talks to,” she said. “They don’t interact the way other kids do, and the more people don’t talk to them, the worse their situation gets. I’m going to stop thinking about talking to them and just do it.”

The Castle Rock moms, too, say the movie will impact their behavior. All of them say their children have had some experiences of being bullied, and some of the kids have at times been bullies themselves.

“I’m going to watch what I say about people more,” said Ferguson. “I already try not to make fun of people or say derogatory things, but I’m going to be more aware of what comes out of my mouth.”

Resources for educators, parents on Bully and bullying

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.