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Bullying on the Big Screen

Lee Hirsch, director of the film Bully, talks about the difficulty administrators face in changing school climate.
In the documentary film Bully, Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, is bullied by his classmates. He has since moved to Oklahoma with his family, where he has many friends.

Even if you haven’t seen Bully, you most likely know it’s a documentary, featuring six students nationwide who were tormented physically and verbally in school for simply being considered different by their peers. One of the leading storylines was of Alex Libby, a student at East Middle School in the Sioux City (Iowa) Community Schools. The camera crew filmed students taunting Alex with degrading names, aggressively choking, shoving and jabbing him on the school bus, and ignoring him during recess. Also caught on camera was Assistant Principal Kim Lockwood, who has received fierce criticism since the film’s release for what appears to be a nonchalant and rather lax approach to the complaints of bullying in East Middle School.

The sad irony? Of the six students, Sioux City was the only district that allowed the Bully crew to film the documentary in its schools because administrators had been working on improving its school climate for nearly a decade. “They’ve heavily invested in social emotional learning at the district level—and clearly they’re still struggling,” says Lee Hirsch, the film’s director.

A stark contrast to East Middle School is the district’s West High School, where Hirsch filmed, although it was not featured in the movie. “You could really feel the difference between these two schools because of the tone set by the leadership in that building,” Hirsch says. “They worked with students to create a school spirit and climate that’s all about kindness. The kids at the top of the social ladder are the nice kids.”

Although West High failed to provide a compelling storyline to feature in Bully, the dichotomy between the two schools within the same district represents real struggles of administrators to create systemic change in school climate. As bullying continues to be brought to the forefront as a national issue, public consensus is becoming increasingly critical of the excuses schools make in failing to intervene in bullying cases. Conquering bullying is a choice administrators must make, says Hirsch.

“You can make the choice to take a stand on it and say, ‘Social emotional learning or school culture will be part of my administration,’” says Hirsch. “There are administrators coming up with the most incredible solutions to these issues every day. Although excuses such as not being properly trained to tackle bullying and other pressures such as paperwork and testing are real and substantial, it’s not something we can continue to stand on.”

While the film was released in March, Bully is forging ahead with its message into the new school year. The Bully Project has partnered with Donors Choose, an online charity that supports classrooms, to create the 1 Million Kids project, which allows classes to see Bully for free at local theaters through November.

It’s been three years since Hirsch and his crew left Sioux City. Since then, Alex Libby and his family have moved to Oklahoma, and Alex told CNN in March that he has made a lot of friends at his new school and that many of his former bullies have reached out to him since the film’s release to apologize. In addition, Sioux City Community Schools has remained more committed than ever to improving school climate and has joined the Bully Project movement. The community was offered a free screening of the film in November 2011, which over 1,600 citizens attended. At this community event, Assistant Principal Lockwood offered an emotional apology to the crowd for her unsatisfactory handling of bullying portrayed in the film.

To be involved in the 1 Million Kids project, visit