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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.