Independent Lens | Bully
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Watch Tuesday, April 7, 2015 at 6:30pm on WORLD.

A beautifully cinematic, character-driven documentary, Bully puts a human face on the devastating impacts of the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. At its heart are those with huge stakes in the issue: five kids and families whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying epidemic. The film, shot over the course of one school year, opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic. and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés and captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, communities, and society as a whole. Directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch.

Lauded by reviewers, Bully was awarded the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award for excellence in journalism, as well as the 2013 Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America, among other honors. Drawing on the film’s success, the producers created The BULLY Project, an advocacy and educational organization. Since 2011, Bully has been seen by more than 3.4 million children through over 10,000 school and community screenings. Working with more than 100 partners globally, The BULLY Project motivates and builds capacity for educators to create safer schools, reduce bullying, and improve educational outcomes for all. Find out more at

The Stories

Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, was 12 years old when filming began and on the brink of starting seventh grade, which the arc of the film traces. Wanting more than anything to fit in, Alex assured his worried parents that the kids who taunted him daily on the bus were only “messing with him.” But as the year unfolded, the bullying Alex had experienced since elementary school continued to escalate dangerously. Today, Alex is a senior in high school; since the film was theatrically released he has spoken about his experiences to students, educators, and politicians across the country. He was also featured in Anderson Cooper’s one-hour special about the positive impact of the film, “The Bully Effect.”

Kelby Johnson, 16 at the time of the filming, was treated as a pariah in the small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma when she came out as a lesbian. In the film, Kelby powerfully describes how she went from being an all-star athlete to being forced to leave her sports teams after facing an outpouring of prejudice from classmates as well as teachers. She refused her parents’ offer to leave town, and, bolstered by her girlfriend and a few staunch friends, resolved to stay. Following the film, Kelby, who is transgender and today identifies as male, was asked to intern at Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in Washington, DC and visited members of Congress to speak on behalf of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) legislation.

In Yazoo County, Mississippi, 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson was picked on every morning and afternoon of the hour-long bus ride between home and school. One morning, the quiet honors student brandished a loaded handgun she’d taken from her mother’s closet to scare off her tormentors. Incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility with the possibility of being charged as an adult with multiple felony counts, Ja’Meya is seen in the film as she awaits the hearing that will decide her fate. Eventually released during the course of filming, she later transferred to a different school and thrived. She plans to enlist in the Armed Forces in honor of her grandfather, who also served in the military.

In October 2009, David and Tina Long’s 17-year-old son Tyler, who had Asperger’s syndrome, died by suicide after years of abuse at the hands of his classmates and indifference from school officials in Murray County, Georgia. Demanding accountability from the school that failed their son so miserably, Tyler’s parents catalyzed dialogue in their community about the widespread prevalence of unchecked bullying in one of the film’s most compelling scenes. Since filming was completed, the Longs brought their case against the Murray County School District all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, and started Everything Starts with 1, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing bullying and finding solutions in honor of Tyler.

Following the death by suicide of their 11-year-old son, Kirk and Laura Smalley of Perkins, Oklahoma were determined to prevent other children from suffering the peer-abuse Ty experienced. Seeking to change kids’ lives and raise awareness about the devastation bullying causes, the Smalleys partnered with Stand for the Silent, a nonprofit organization started by a group of students from Oklahoma State University’s Upward Bound chapter, after they heard Ty’s story. Since the film was theatrically released, the Smalleys have traveled to hundreds of schools and spoken with more than 800,000 kids, sharing their story and offering tools to prevent their tragedy from happening to another family.