‘Bullied’ film draws strong responses from former student victims

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October 4, 2011
By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter
Inspiring. Devastating. Powerful. Memorable. Inspiring. Moving.
These were some of the reactions heard after a free public screening of “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” on Sunday, Sept. 25.

The 2010 documentary by the Southern Poverty Law Center recounts the story of Jamie Nabozny, a Wisconsin student who suffered relentless harassment and physical abuse at school. Nabozny fought back in court, holding the school that should have protected him responsible. Nabozny was awarded nearly a million dollars in restitution when he won the legal battle in 1996. The landmark case is believed to have helped change the degree of responsibility placed on schools in cases of bullying.

Is legal recourse the best recourse, though? Does it make any difference in preventing bullying?

“Sometimes legal action is the only way to send a message,” said Rich West, a Northampton parent of three teens, one of whom was the target of middle-school bullies. “But preventive education can do a lot, too.”

“The Nabozny case made no appreciable difference at my high school, in [1995, 1996] or beyond,” said Sid Arens, 30, who went to high school in Florida. “I do think the deaths of Phoebe Prince and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover had an impact. There seems to be a much greater awareness of the harm done by bullying and the need to keep students safe.”

“I think the Phoebe Prince case, because of its extensive coverage, galvanized the education profession in a way none of the other incidents seemed to do,” agreed West. “It’s a shame that it’s taken so long, but I think real steps are being taken, especially in public education, to try to curb bullying in our schools.”

Arens was quick to point out that he doesn’t know about that impact first-hand, since he’s no longer in high school. His sense of the impact comes from hearing school administrators in the media. Yet he’s not sure how reliable school officials are in reporting on school safety.

“The movie made it very clear that some school administrators will say one thing and do another [or nothing at all]. I do believe there is an overall improvement in awareness, but I’m not sure if that has translated into any actual protection for bullied students.”

Still, despite his misgivings, Arens said he left the film feeling “hopeful for current and future students.” West also said the film “gave him hope.”

“I think one of the things I was most struck by in the film was not the terrible act of the bullying itself or even the neglect from the school system, but more the circumstances that lead children to be forced to stay in a bad situation due to income or support,” said Adriana Piantedosi, an 18-year-old from Northampton. “And while it’s inspiring to see one young man rise above it and set a precedent, saying, ‘This is not in any way acceptable,’ you realize how many children out there don’t have a voice. It really makes your heart ache for what he had to go through and what so many kids have to go through on a daily basis.”

Denny Fuller, an older gay man from Charlemont, saw a connection between the economic challenges working against Nabozny and the legal process of combating bullying.

“I ask myself whether most people have, indeed, ‘equal protection under law’ when it becomes so expensive for an individual to seek justice that most cannot consider this alternative. Equal protection under law seems to be a right of the rich, or, as happened in ‘Bullied,’ the result of the good fortune for an exceptional child,” Fuller said. “Have we as a country relegated the judicial branch of government, as we have the legislative and executive branches, to the forces of the marketplace?”

“I was bullied, though not to the violent extent [Nabozny] was,” said Tim Thrower, a gay man from Westhampton. “It was still demoralizing, and contributed to my poor self-esteem that I still carry today. I wish we had this film shown when I was in school. I would like to see this film shown at every school in the country, every year.”

“Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History” was the first in a series of LGBTQ-themed films planned as part of the Big Ol’ Gay (BOG) Film Series; information is available at uunorthampton.org/bogblog. More information about “Bullied” can be found on the Southern Poverty Law Center website, splcenter.org.