Target ... during the course of filming Bully, Alex Libby, 14, was punched, stabbed and strangled by fellow classmates. Photo: Supplied
Bully, a powerful new documentary focusing on the bullying epidemic affecting children, is so confronting that it was initially given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. They argued that the language used in the film – actual footage shoot within the US school system – was unsuitable for minors despite the fact it was spoken by the students themselves.
This meant that those under 17 would be unable to see the film without an adult - effectively preventing access to those who could most benefit from its message - causing everyone from Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber to Microsoft to petition the censors into giving it a more teenage-friendly PG-13 rating.
It worked. With some minor edits, children across America are now able to see it, with some school districts even making it compulsory viewing for students.
Devasted ... Laura and Kirk Smalley's 11-year-old son Ty suicided. Photo: Supplied
But why the big push? Kirk Smalley says people should see the film in order to better understand the seriousness of the issue.
Smalley and his wife Laura feature prominently in the documentary, the cameras catching them directly after the suicide of their 11-year-old son Ty, who took his own life after being suspended from school for standing up to a bully. The couple now campaign vigorously with organisation Stand for the Silent to raise awareness of the sometimes disastrous effects of bullying.
"We have seen more support and awareness since the film came out," he said. "Helping stop bullying is all about awareness, in my opinion. If everyone knows what it can cause then it's less likely to happen."
Australia saw a surge of interest in bullying last March when a viral video featuring then seventh grader Casey Heynes hit the news. The Chifley College student, who had been subject to sustained bullying, was caught retaliating against a tormenter and sparked heated discussion about the complex issue. Since then it has largely been relegated to the back of public consciousness despite the best efforts of the nation's advocacy groups.
"I think we tend to overestimate those instances as seminal moments," said Jonathan Nicholas, CEO of the Inspire Foundation, the organisation behind ReachOut Australia. "Has a lot changed? No. But are we making continual progress? Yes."
Nicholas says the first step to combating bullying is to understand it. Describing it as sustained verbal and/or physical victimisation, he explains how we often discount bullying as an unfortunate rite of passage and that the best way for us to appreciate its gravity is to liken it to the more adult concept of harassment; the feeling of being unsafe and the inability to freely go about your daily business. The difference being that when harassment occurs during an individual's formative years the effects can be more severe and long lasting.
"The most extreme issues in psychology stem from long-term bullying and those are the ones that can lead to extreme outcomes such as suicide and self-harm," says Kimberley O'Brien, principal psychologist at Sydney's Quirky Kid Clinic. "In general, it can lead to a drop in self-esteem, a drop in academic achievement, isolation and a lack of communication. When kids have already spoken to teachers about it and maybe mentioned it to their parents and nothing is done a lack of hope sets in."
This concept of institutional responsibility is often a sore talking point. Data from a 2009 study, supplied by the NSW Department of Education's Student Welfare team, shows that 27 per cent of Australian students from years four to seven have reported being bullied. Though the number of unreported cases would likely increase the actual percentage dramatically.
Nicholas, while sympathetic to the idea that schools can't always prevent incidences of bullying, believes it's up to principals and teachers to create and enforce a code of ethics for students and staff alike. If the norm, he says, is one where the values of support and kindness are upheld the chances of bullying being an endemic problem are low. The next step is to ensure appropriate response structures are in place so that when individual instances of conflict come up they can be dealt with swiftly.
"It's absolutely the responsibility of the school and those that fund the school to make sure that they provide, as a fundamental right to every child, the ability to go through their schooling years feeling safe," he said. "That sets the bar pretty low. It's not exactly an outrageous claim to say that every child should feel safe, and therefore when they're not we need to deal with it."
Citing a legal case in the late '90s where the parent of a bullied student sued the Catholic school system via workplace law, Nicholas says we need to apply similar rules to school environments.
"As CEO I'm not legally able to walk up to one of my staff members and abuse them and not expect any repercussions. In fact, it's grounds for immediate dismissal," he said. "Is the legal response the right response [when it comes to bullying]? In some instances, absolutely. But I worry that by the time you need a legal response that there's been some systematic failing well before that."
Parents also need to be more proactive. O'Brien suggests that they remain vigilant to changes in their children's behaviour. If they all of a sudden refuse to go to school or their mood or academic performance is on the decline it could indicate a problem.
If their child comes to them and says they've been bullied the most important thing is to act. Parents are entitled to ask school counsellors to increase supervision in the playground and hold the administration accountable by ensuring action has been taken after every incident. This way bullied kids feel heard. Though Nicholas adds that it's important to discriminate between bullying and general conflict.
"Children are trying to work through social situations and they're pretty bad at it – they're children – and it's really hurtful as a 10-year-old when someone doesn't want to be your friend anymore," he said. "Does that mean the other person is being a bully? No. But does it feel like bullying? Possibly. This is another issue for parents and schools to work through – to discern whether it's conflict where someone is feeling hurt, which can be a great life lesson, or victimisation, which is unacceptable in any environment."
For his part, Smalley vows to spend the rest of his days honouring his son's memory by combating bullying wherever he finds it. Admitting it's unlikely we'll see an end to bullying behaviour, he says that if we stand up against it as a society it will one day get to the point where it is no longer tolerated.
"Working with Stand for the Silent honours all the kids lost to bullying, we keep their memories alive by sharing their stories with the world," he said. "And, no sir, it doesn't help the grieving process. I relive that day three or four times a day, every day. If anything it keeps it from healing at all. I reckon that is my lot in life. But we tell our son's story to help other kids and parents."
Bully opens nationwide in August.