Bully Dangerously Oversimplifies the Connection Between Bullying and Suicide.

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March 29 2012 6:44 PM

The Problem With Bully

The new documentary dangerously oversimplifies the connection between bullying and suicide.

The movie Bully
The movie Bully

Movie still © 2011 the Weinstein Co. All rights reserved.

What do you say about a documentary that could do some good—and also a lot of harm? That’s how I feel about Bully, the new documentary by Lee Hirsch that has already received a lot of attention because the MPAA gave it an unwarranted R rating, on account of a few curse words. (The movie is now being released unrated, and at least one major exhibitor has said it will admit children under 17 if they bring a note from their parents.) I was prepared to love this movie for offering an in-depth take on a difficult problem that I’ve been covering for a few years. And I did love parts of it—the parts about children who face troubles from their peers but also show inspiring resilience. But the movie’s depiction of a boy who committed suicide is utterly one-sided, factually questionable, and could pose a real risk to some vulnerable young viewers.*

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

First, the good parts. Hirsch’s most affecting character is 12-year-old Alex, a sweet, odd boy from Sioux City, Iowa. We see disturbing, raw footage of Alex being bullied on the bus, and we see the administrators and guidance counselors at his school fail to help him, at least at first. It’s one of the best depictions I’ve seen of how well-intentioned educators can be overwhelmed by the day-to-day dilemmas that bullying poses for them. There is much for kids, parents, and school staff to learn here about how small cruelties add up and should be addressed, and I hope this part of the movie spurs a lot of discussion and soul-searching about how to help targeted kids.

I also loved another of Hirsch’s main characters, Kelby, the 16-year-old girl from Oklahoma who comes out, finds a note in her locker that says “faggots aren’t welcome here,” and bounces back because of her strong relationships with her friends and family. The movie similarly benefits from the storyline of Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old in Mississippi who brings a gun on the bus after being taunted and is charged with 45 felony counts. Good for Hirsch for taking on the problem of disproportionate punishment.

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I wish I could also laud his approach to suicide, but I can’t. At the heart of the documentary are the deaths of two boys, 11-year-old Ty Smalley and 17-year-old Tyler Long. Hirsch dwells on the Long narrative, in a drawn-out opening sequence narrated by Long’s father and in several other painful scenes. We see home video of Tyler growing up in Murray County, Ga. We see his parents at his gravesite. We hear that bullying—and bullying alone—caused his death. We see a town hall meeting at which Tyler’s mother blasts the police officer stationed at his school, Murray County High, for failing to help her son.

What we don’t see is Tyler’s mental health history. Here’s some of what’s missing. Tyler, who died when he was a junior, was diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s (autism with a normal to high IQ) in sixth grade. Five weeks before his death, Tyler’s father found him in his room “messing” with belts and asked his son if he was contemplating suicide. Tyler said no, and his parents believed him. About two weeks later, however, on Sept. 25, 2009, the Longs took Tyler to see a psychologist, at least in part because he wanted to go. Tyler’s parents, Tina and David, didn’t tell the psychologist about their suicide concerns or report that their son was being mistreated in school, even though the psychologist asked about this specifically. (The Longs also didn’t tell the school that Tyler might be suicidal, or that he’d gone for counseling.)

The Longs scheduled a follow-up appointment with the psychologist for Tyler on Oct. 12., five days before Tyler's death. Tyler didn’t show up. The reason, his mother said later, was that he had totaled his car. Another fact that could be relevant to Tyler’s mental health state: In September, his parents pulled him from all of his honors and AP classes, where he had high marks, to make sure he could keep up his grades and remain eligible for Georgia’s Hope Scholarship, which helps pay for college at in-state universities.

These facts all come from a brief filed by the Murray County school district in response to a lawsuit filed by Long’s family, which blames school officials for Tyler’s death and demands $1.7 million in damages. The family’s brief in response doesn’t address these facts, saying instead that they are “irrelevant and immaterial.” (The brief does dispute other facts: The school district, for example, claims that Tyler had a girlfriend who broke up with him in fall 2009; the family’s brief asserts this is not true.) You will learn none of this from watching Bully.*

I asked Hirsch why he didn’t mention Tyler’s diagnoses. “I really felt that by not disclosing it, we wouldn’t allow the audience to prejudge,” he said. “It was a decision we thought about a lot. Ultimately, we thought the film would be more powerful without it.”

To Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, this was a serious error. When I played Bully for Haas, she recoiled in horror, and I don’t use the word lightly. “To leave Tyler’s mental health problems out of the film is an egregious omission,” she said. “It is really misinformation. The filmmakers had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person’s suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else—I’m appalled, honestly. That is hugely, hugely unfortunate.”

Haas feels strongly about this for a few reasons. First, research shows a strong link between Asperger’s and suicide and a link between bipolar disorder and suicide as well. This means these facts about Tyler are important to understanding his decision to take his life. There’s more, too. From Haas’ point of view, by presenting such an incomplete version of the facts, Hirsch has created a real risk of suicide contagion—the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations. “I worry terribly about the contagion effect,” Haas said. “One message of this move is: ‘Bullying kills’—as if it’s a normal response to kill yourself, when of course most people who are bullied don’t do that. Young people who feel bullied could harken back to the movie, and it could be a powerful draw to suicide for them. If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive. We might feel sympathy for him, but he wouldn’t have the emotional pull of a character who is being romanticized. When you turn a real person, who had a very painful, distressing life, into a kind of fairytale character, that’s something young people are much more likely to identify with. And identification is at the heart of contagion.”

There’s another omission in the film that dismayed Haas. The police report on Tyler’s death made public the suicide note he left. It reads:

Dear Family,
If you are reading this I am DEAD. I don’t want to live any
longer with this burden I have. I don’t have a supporting
family or friends for that matter. You think I am
worthless and pathetic. All I wanted was acceptance
and kindness, but no I didn’t get love. Maybe I’ll see you
in the afterlife or not. I want to end this pain I have and to
live in eternal hapiness [sic]. I hate myself because I don’t
make everyone happy. Tr. [younger brother] I love you because we share a
battle of disabilities. Te., [younger sister] You will be great someday. Tina,
Your personality is what helped me. David, I looked up to
you for all my life and I love you the most. This World will
be a better place without me.
Sincerely,
Tyler Lee Long
1992-2009

The suicide note has seemingly nothing to do with bullying. By now, you must be wondering: What bullying did Tyler Long experience? Honestly, after watching the movie and reading all of the legal papers filed by Tyler’s family and his school, I’m not sure. In the film, David Long says that kids banged Tyler’s head into a school locker a day or two before his death. No one has said who those kids are supposed to be. Murray County High has 42 video cameras installed throughout the school and grounds. They cover the hallway where Tyler’s locker was. The police looked at the tape on the relevant days and saw no one pushing Tyler’s head into a locker or doing anything else to him. This allegation also disappeared from the family’s lawsuit after it was challenged by the school. In the movie and in the suit, Tyler’s family says that he was bullied daily. Nine students quoted in the Longs’ brief say things like “students spit in his food in the cafeteria,” and “he was pushed in the back of his head in the cafeteria and would yell ‘leave me alone’ and then throw his plate away and leave,” and “they’d call him retarded, slow, faggot,” and “people would pull his pants down in the bathroom and throw stuff at him.”

It’s very hard to tell, but it doesn’t seem that these accusations and others like them are about Tyler’s junior year. They seem to be about middle school and the first year and a half of high school. In ninth grade, Tyler had real trouble in school with other kids, his mother complained, and school staff tried to help him. In 10th grade, there was an incident in which Tyler called a girl a “pregnant bitch” and was pushed down the stairs by her boyfriend. The boy and the girl received five-day in-school suspensions for bullying Tyler, and the Longs asked prosecutors to press criminal charges. After that, Tyler told a teacher a student kicked him in hallway, but he didn’t want it reported because it was just horseplay. The teacher reported it anyway, and the student got an in-school suspension for three days. Also, in Spanish class in December 2008, a teacher saw a student irritating Tyler, and in discussing the incident afterward with his counselor, Tyler said he was picked on daily but was “used to it.” When she asked him to name the perpetrators, however, he didn’t.

That’s the end of the written record of bullying, with one possible exception. In the days before his death, the Longs say Tyler experienced “egregious bullying” in his guitar class. The teacher saw some “jawing,” but nothing else. A friend of Tyler’s who saw what happened said that another student pretended to take Tyler’s guitar away, then cut it out when told to stop, and that Tyler wasn’t upset afterward.

Maybe there is more to the bullying than that—maybe kids were mean and unfriendly in Tyler’s junior year, and he kept this buried inside, or he told his family and they didn’t report it to the school. But the allegations the nine students make in the lawsuit are for the most part vague and unspecific. Given the contested facts in the lawsuit, when I spoke to Hirsch over the phone, I asked him whether he’d tried to talk to anyone from the Murray County schools. At first he said yes, then he said he wasn’t sure, then noted that the school district was invited to a town hall meeting that’s shown in the film, but school officials declined to come. “By not attending, they made a very clear statement,” Hirsch said. A minute or two later, the phone went dead, and Hirsch said he’d call me back. He didn’t. Instead, he sent me a statement days later saying, “Our additional attempts to engage school officials in person were declined.” The lawyer for the Murray County schools says that no one in the district remembers hearing from Hirsch or his crew. 

Hirsch also told me, “I presented the parents' perspective. That was my story.” But is that enough? On television, Tina Long has said of the school district officials she blames for failing to help Tyler, “I think they killed my son, I think they led him to do what he did.” This is a message you could take from the movie, too: The only thing that matters in explaining Tyler’s death is that school officials failed to prevent bullies from tormenting him. I don’t want to excuse kids who were cruel to Tyler, or the problems he had in school. And I can understand a family’s desire to assign blame for a child’s awful death. And believe me, I know that by describing the other problems Tyler was facing, I will be accused of blaming the victim.

But given the larger set of facts about the death of Tyler Long, does Bully portray it responsibly? There are real people on the receiving end of these blame campaigns, campaigns that certain members of the media are all too eager to embrace. Reviews of the movie thus far have assumed that Hirsch’s version of the story is complete and true, with no mentions of the ongoing court battle. Just as important, the stated mission of this movie is to portray the problem of bullying honestly and accurately. By taking the parents’ side so completely, and leaving out all the information that doesn’t fit his narrative, Hirsch oversimplifies and distorts. His film is supposed to be a teaching tool, yet it offers some serious misimpressions about the connection between bullying and suicide, misimpressions that could have real effects on young viewers.

Think about that for a minute if you go to see Bully—particularly if you’re bringing your kids.

*Correction, March 30, 2012: This article originally suggested that the depictions of two suicides in the movie were factually questionable. The factually questionable account is of Tyler Long’s suicide. (Return to the corrected sentence.) *Correction, April 3, 2012:  This piece originally reported the school district’s assertion that Tyler Long had a girlfriend who broke up with him in 2009 but failed to note that the Long family’s legal brief disputes this claim. The error has been corrected. Also, the phrase "does not dispute" has been changed to "does not address" in the sentence characterizing the responses in the Long family's brief, to make clear that the brief objects to the school district's version of the facts on the grounds that they are irrelevant and/or immaterial, without challenging them directly. (Return to the corrected section.)