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Bully, a documentary by writer/director Lee Hirsch, poignantly depicts the physical and emotional torment endured by five children who were victimized by bullies in different cities across the country. Two of the five subjects committed suicide as a result of the bullying.
One of the most distressing aspects of Bully is the knowledge that these kids are but a microcosm of a nationwide epidemic.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 13 million children and teens are bullied each year. Because most of these perpetrators act in groups rather than alone, the number of bullies could be as high as 50 million.
According to the U. S. Department of Justice, a child is bullied every seven minutes. The National Association of School Psychologists reports that approximately 160,000 students stay home from school every day because of bullying.
Teens who are bullied also are more likely to commit suicide, which is the third leading cause of teenage deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Increased awareness, along with publicity from several bully-related suicides in the past few years, have prompted local teens and other community groups to band together and work to put a stop to the bullying.
Sexism In The Media
According to anti-sexist advocate, filmmaker and author Dr. Jackson Katz, there is a connection between bullying and other forms of violence and the sexist messages conveyed through popular culture and the media.
Boston-based Katz visited Metro Detroit on April 15-16 for a series of presentations sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Foundation and the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Assault (JCADA), along with several other local organizations.
One of the events was a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, which showed the many ways women and girls are demeaned and objectified in films, television and advertising. Katz also facilitated a men-only power breakfast, a community lunch-and-learn and a program for teens from local religious and youth groups.
“Bullying is related to all of this,” he said. “Relationship abuse and sexual harassment are forms of bullying — taking advantage of another person who is perceived to be weaker.”
Katz emphasized that members of both sexes have a responsibility to combat sexism, bullying and domestic violence and urged males and females to work together as allies instead of viewing one another as enemies.
“His message was life changing and inspiring for all who heard it; it set the stage for our community to come together in the understanding that violence against women is everybody’s business,” said Ellen Yashinsky Chute, chief community outreach officer for Jewish Family Service.
Katz’s message resonated for West Bloomfield teen Vanessa Farkas, who attended his teen presentation. Farkas was a baby when her mother left an abusive marriage, fleeing the state with her and her two older siblings. Farkas said she was inspired to help spread awareness about domestic abuse by her mother, who has spoken to many groups and organizations about her ordeal.
“People don’t understand that these things happen, especially in our Jewish community,” Farkas said. “It’s really important for everyone to be aware; there can be signs of control and abuse that people don’t recognize.”
Katz showed the teens video clips from several Disney movies to illustrate how the films depict women as flirtatious beings whose main goal is to find the ideal man, preferably a prince or other powerful male figure.
He said that The Little Mermaid movie, which many considered more enlightened than earlier Disney films because of its plucky female protagonist, shows Ariel giving up her voice for the man she loves. Despite her spirited personality, she ultimately had to rely on the prince to rescue her from the evil Sea Witch, which allowed her to regain her voice.
Many of the teens were surprised and affected by this segment of the presentation. One eighth-grade girl said that it made her angry to think that, as a child, she had been unwittingly manipulated by the messages conveyed by these films.
“They did a good job with the Disney clips,” said Farkas. “Most of those things I never would have picked up on.”
No Innocent Bystanders
Many anti-bullying activists, including Katz, agree it’s important to focus on the bystanders, those who unintentionally condone bullying by choosing not to get involved.
“Historically, there have been two categories: perpetrators and victims,” Katz said. “The ‘bystander approach’ brings everyone surrounding both groups into the conversation. Silence in the face of prejudice, bullying, abuse and other bad behavior is a form of consent.”
He added that the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was partially caused by the “silence of good people.”
“Silent consent is almost as bad as given consent,” said Evan Grossman-Lempert, a West Bloomfield teen who attended Katz’s presentation.
“It’s important that teens get this information at an early age,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel, who helped coordinate the April 16 event that was attended by more than 250 teens.
Bully, The Movie
BBYO, the largest Jewish teen organization in the world, has taken a stand against bullying by partnering with Keshet, NFTY, Repair the World and other groups to bring the Bully documentary to audiences throughout the country.
More than 200 teens and parents watched the film at the Uptown Birmingham 8 on April 17. On the way into the theater, everyone was asked to sign an anti-bullying pledge card as part of a national BBYO campaign aimed at Jewish teens called Stand UP for Each Other: A Campaign for Respect and Inclusion. The movie was followed by a brief discussion, facilitated by BBYO teen coordinators Matt Firsten of West Bloomfield and Nicole Goodman of Orchard Lake. Audience members were asked what action they intended to take after seeing the film.
“I will not remain silent,” said Ryan Feldman of West Bloomfield.
Other teens voiced similar sentiments, vowing to help spread the word and stand up against bullying when they see it.
“I thought it was really intense,” said Eliana Ungar of West Bloomfield. “I was shocked to see how the people [in authority] did not react.”
Other local sponsors of the Bully screening included Defeat the Label, Adat Shalom Synagogue, Congregation Beth Ahm, Congregation Shir Tikvah, Jewish Experiences for Families, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Jewish Women’s Foundation, Opening the Doors Program of Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education and the Youth Federation of Temple Israel (Y.F.T.I.).
In his remarks to the group after the film, Eric Adelman, director of Michigan Region BBYO, talked about cyber bullying, something that was not depicted in the documentary, which took place mainly in rural areas. Adelman said that bullying in communities such as Metro Detroit was even more intense because of the prolific use of social networking sites via computers, smart phones and other mobile devices.
“Technology provides more opportunities for nonstop bullying,” he said.
Adelman urged teens to ask the adults in their lives and in the community to help them handle situations where bullying is occurring.
“Don’t let us off the hook,” he said.
The grim statistics and negative publicity also have caused lawmakers to take action to stop the torment. In December 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder signed House Bill 4163 into law, making Michigan the 48th state to pass anti-bullying legislation. During the signing ceremony, Snyder said that he was bullied throughout his childhood and teenage years for being a “nerd.” The new law also requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies or submit copies of their existing policies to the State Department of Education by June of this year.
Taking A Stand
Bassie Shemtov, director of Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization that provides programs for children with special needs, has developed a curriculum called “Upstander,” geared toward teens who are observers rather than perpetrators.
“The idea is to be an ‘Upstander’ instead of a bystander,” said Shemtov. “Eighty percent of our kids are bystanders. They think [bullying] is not their responsibility. No. It is their responsibility. We need to teach our teens that they can and should stand up instead of standing by.”
During the 2011-12 school year, the monthly Upstander course was held at West Bloomfield High School, Andover High School and Walled Lake Central, Northern and Western high schools.
“For our children to achieve academically, they must feel safe,” said Kenneth Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated Schools. “We recognize the emotional needs of our students are a significant factor in their success in school and in life. As a result of the Friendship Circle Upstander curriculum, hundreds of our students have a new depth of knowledge that will guide them for years to come.”
Stand for Change
An international anti-bullying event, sponsored by Defeat the Label, is scheduled on May 4, when students in schools all over the world will stand up at noon Eastern Standard Time. To date, more than 600,000 students have registered to participate.
Defeat the Label, founded by West Bloomfield businessmen Jeff Sakwa and Kevin Goldman, is a nonprofit organization that promotes a bully-free society free of labels and stereotypes through awareness campaigns, community outreach and special events geared toward middle and high school students. Schools can register for the May 4 event at www.stand4change.org.
Empowering Teens And Parents
Judy Lipson, a West Bloomfield licensed professional counselor and educator, said teens can often combat bullying by developing self-confidence and a sense of empowerment. She has developed specific techniques to help students accomplish those goals.
“It’s interesting to see the transformation of a student, who comes in scared and shaking, once he learns to stand up straight, smile and speak with confidence,” she said.
Lipson also teaches students and parents how to stand up to bullies by confronting the aggressors or reporting the behavior to an adult.
“Some of these kids did not know that it’s OK to have a voice,” she said. “They need to be taught specific behaviors, and a lot of parents don’t know how to do that. It’s a combination of building confidence and rewriting old beliefs that most adults have had since childhood.”
By Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer