A Legal Victory for the School Officials Demonized in the Bully Documentary

The new world of online cruelty.
May 22 2012 6:19 PM

More Problems for Bully

A judge grants a major legal victory to the school officials demonized by the documentary.

Alex Hopkins in Bully
Alex Hopkins in Bully

Still from the Weinstein Company 2011. All rights reserved.

If you’ve seen the documentary Bully, you were likely affected by its portrayal of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old from Murray County, Ga., who committed suicide. The movie includes long sequences depicting Tyler growing up and his family’s grief after his death, as well as footage from a town hall meeting in which his parents, as well as other students and parents, vilify Tyler’s school, Murray County High, and the people who work there, for not doing enough to stop the bullying they believe led Tyler to take his own life.

I wrote about the one-sided and misleading depiction of Tyler’s death in Bully when the film came out. To the dismay of suicide experts, the documentary unquestioningly blames bullying for Tyler’s death, and takes the side of the Long family in blaming the school district for not doing enough to prevent it. Other pertinent facts are left out of the movie’s version of Tyler’s story, most glaringly Tyler’s troubled mental health history: He was diagnosed with Asperger’s and bipolar disorder. His family contests the bipolar diagnosis. Both conditions are linked to an increased risk for suicide.

The movie also neglects to mention that the Long family brought a $1.7 million lawsuit against the Murray County schools, also on the theory that school officials are responsible for Tyler’s suicide. (On television, Tina Long has said of the school officials, “I think they killed my son; I think they led him to do what he did.”) This week, the family’s suit was thrown out before trial by Judge Harold Murphy of federal district court in a thoughtful and even-handed 186-page decision. To fill in the gaps left by Bully, it’s worth looking at why Judge Murphy absolved school officials of legal responsibility for the tragedy of Tyler Long’s suicide.

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Forgive me for starting with a bit of lawyer talk, but it’s important: The law understandably makes it difficult for judges to toss out a case before trial, so Judge Murphy had to pass a high bar. The judge wrote that he found “no genuine issue as to any material fact,” and ordered summary for the school district as a matter of law. He did this even as he viewed the facts in the light most favorable to the Longs.

Judge Murphy acknowledged that Tyler and his mother repeatedly reported to school officials that he was being bullied and harassed by fellow students in middle school and in ninth grade and the first half of 10th grade. “This is an emotionally charged case with very difficult facts,” the judge wrote. “There is little question that Tyler was the victim of severe disability harassment, and that Defendants should have done more to stop the harassment and prevent future incidents.”

When I asked her for comment, Cynthia Lowen, the producer of Bully, cited that line in her email response to argue that Judge Murphy “reaffirmed the presentation in the film.” But Judge Murphy also pointed out that between December 2008 (the middle of Tyler’s 10th-grade year) and his death in October 2009 (the fall of his 11th-grade year) the school district received no reports of bullying from Tyler (nor were there reports of Tyler being bullied from others). After Tyler’s death, students told his parents they had seen him being harassed. But these reports are vague—they don’t name any bullies, or give specifics—and they were never made to the school. The judge didn’t weigh in on how much the bullying contributed to Tyler’s suicide, but the gap in time between reports of bullying to the school and Tyler’s death obviously raises questions about causation. The judge also included as relevant a host of facts from the period leading up to Tyler’s death that weren’t related to the school, including a suicide note that did not mention bullying, and an accident in which he wrecked his car.

The central reason the Longs’ lawsuit fails, the judge ruled, was the lack of facts showing that the school showed “deliberate indifference” to its duty to protect Tyler. That’s the legal standard for suits like this, and to meet it, the Longs have to show that the actions the school took, or failed to take, were clearly unreasonable. The Longs, Judge Murphy said, “fail to provide even one example of a reported incident” in which the school failed to respond, or responded unreasonably. “The evidence shows that Defendants diligently investigated each reported incident and, when they could identify the harasser, disciplined offenders based on the severity of the incident and the accused's disciplinary history.” Judge Murphy also pointed out that the school’s disciplinary responses worked as a matter of deterrence. “Significantly, no student who received discipline from the school ever caused problems for Tyler again after being disciplined,” the judge wrote. “Defendants’ response to the reported incidents was therefore 100 percent effective.”

Bullying can contribute to teenagers’ awful decisions to take their own lives. And sometimes, school districts—like this one in Minnesota—should be held accountable for failing to protect students. But it is misleading to use Tyler Long’s death, stripped of much of its crucial context, to draw a cause-and-effect line from bullying to suicide. It doesn’t help us appreciate the full dimensions of teenage suicide—quite the opposite. And as Judge Murphy’s ruling shows, the movie’s omissions are unfair to the school officials who tried to help Tyler, even if they didn’t succeed. Bully needlessly demonizes them. Yes, they could have done more; others could have too. Yet director Lee Hirsch opted for a simpler, more sensational story rather than the whole one.

This is not the fault of the Long family. After my earlier piece about Bully ran in Slate, Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who lost her 25-year-old daughter to suicide, wrote to me to point this out. “As a parent of a child who died by suicide, the first year is a horrible blur,” Dauber wrote. “People are not able to tell causal stories that make sense for many years, if ever. Who can blame the families if they in their shock and grief and rage latch on the true, if partial, story that their child’s life was made worse by bullying? They can’t be expected to understand it all immediately or even ever. The loss of a child to any cause, but especially suicide is too much to bear. That is why I feel that Hirsch's conduct is irresponsible and displays a lack of judgment. … It made me physically ill to watch. My heart broke for these families.” Dauber also reminded me that the statute of limitations for suits like this is often just a year, forcing parents to sue even as they’re in the midst of the early and often desperate phases of grieving.

I share Dauber’s feelings. Not surprisingly, Cynthia Lowen, the producer of Bully, called Judge Murphy’s ruling “a tragedy and injustice for this family.” When I wrote about the film previously, Hirsch, the director, told me, “I presented the parents’ perspective. That was my story.” But when I asked him over the phone whether he’d tried to talk to anyone from the Murray County schools, he waffled, and then the phone went dead. Hirsch texted to say he’d call me back. He didn’t. Instead, he sent a statement 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. After my piece ran, the producer of Bully denounced me for writing about Tyler’s medical history, claiming that “Asperger Syndrome is not a recognized risk factor for suicide.” Sadly, that’s wrong. As the American Federation for Suicide Prevention pointed out to me, considerable research links Asperger’s and autism to an elevated risk of suicide. (More helpful information here.)

I don’t understand the position the filmmakers’ have taken. Bully’s stated goal is to shed light on the problem of bullying and to lead the way toward finding solutions. How can leaving viewers with serious misimpressions about suicide further that goal? It all seems baffling and irresponsible—and in light of Judge Murphy’s ruling, all the more so.

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