Panel Urges Parents, Educators and Kids to Stand Up Against Bullying
The panel discussion followed the premiere of 'Bully,' a documentary screened at the Palladium as part of the second annual Uptown Film Festival Saturday.
There were a lot of tears at probably the most talked-about premiere of the Uptown Film Festival.
There was also a lot of anger, frustration and above all, a desire for change.
Bully, a documentary on bullying in American schools and communities from acclaimed filmmaker Lee Hirsch, officially premiered Saturday afternoon at the Palladium 12 as part of the second annual Uptown Film Festival. The film will be officially released March 30.
After the premiere, Defeat the Label, an international anti-bullying nonprofit with local roots — as well as one of the festival’s nonprofit partners — hosted a panel discussion with area educators, parents, counselors, a police officer and a 7th grade bullying victim.
The film itself follows five bullied children and their families during the 2009-10 school year, including one family who has just lost their son to suicide after he was bullied for years.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, more than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the United States.
Before its' premiere, the film attracted attention after an Ann Arbor teen, Katy Butler, fought to have the film’s rating changed from R to PG-13 so that more young people will be able to see the movie in theaters.
The Motion Picture Association of America turned down the most recent appeal for a rating change, citing multiple instances of profanity during the film.
'By talking about this ... we're saving lives'
Having the Bully premiere, and panel discussion, in Michigan meant a lot for Kevin Epling, father of Matt Epling, a Michigan teen who committed suicide in 2002 after being bullied.
Epling was one of the panelists during a bullying discussion that followed the film’s premiere. Also on the panel was Darren Ofiara, detective sergeant with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office; Michelle Klein, a West Bloomfield-based social worker who specializes in working with adolescents; West Bloomfield High School counselor Lisa Graff; JoAnn Andrees, superintendent of the West Bloomfield School District; as well as area 7th grader Ethan Wolf and his father Richard.
All the panelists said they identified with or recognized many of the emotions presented in Bully, whether it was the “1,000-yard stare,” as described by Ofiara (“when it gets so bad, they become numb to the abuse”), or the lack of action schools take when bullying occurs.
Ethan Wolf said he used to be bullied on a regular basis, and said he still sees it happening. However, he said he's not happy with what his school has done about it.
“I’ve seen it happen and the principal just walks by,” he said.
Several other panelists and audience members said they were disappointed the film didn’t portray many of the covert forms of bullying, whether that be cyber bullying, mean-spirited gossiping or just lunchroom politics.
While all panelists agreed that bullying isn’t new, Epling related the rise in awareness to a similar movement in the domestic abuse prevention movement. As more kids and parents realize bullying isn’t OK, he said, they’re speaking out, calling attention to teen suicides and trying to make a difference.
However as noted by both Andrees and State Sen. Randy Richardville, who opened the premiere at a panel discussion Saturday morning, bullying isn’t something that can be stopped by school policies or legislation — it’s up to the individual.
“It’s not about passing and making policies,” Andrees said. “It’s about how we treat each other as human beings.”
In order to help prevent and combat bullying at its core, all panelists agreed that parents must step up, become even more engaged in their child’s life and be prepared for some honest discussions.
“One of the biggest problems when it comes to bullying is adults,” Epling said. “Adults don’t want to change, to acknowledge this is a problem. But by doing this and talking about this, we’re saving lives every day.”
Richard Wolf, who said he questioned his parenting once he heard Ethan was being bullied, agreed.
“It’s time we listened — as parents, as educators, in every walk of life,” he said. “We need to make a difference so this doesn’t happen.”
'Stand-Up Against Bullying' initiative to raise funds for 24-hour hotline
Betsy Kellman, regional director for the Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said those interested in learning more about the anti-bullying movement can visit adl.org for resources, school curriculum guides and more.
Jeff Sakwa, president of the Michigan chapter of Defeat the Label, said his group is also looking at holding a town hall on bullying at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit.
Defeat the Label has also designated May 4 as “Stand-Up Against Bullying Day," which urges every American student to physically stand up at 12 noon eastern time on that date as part of a silent protest against bullying.
Students are encouraged to visit defeatthelabel.com and nominate their school to "join the movement." The top schools with the most nominations could win appearances by celebrities, autographed goods and more.
All funds raised in conjunction with Stand-Up Against Bullying Day will be used to launch a 24-hour anti-bullying hotline, Sakwa said.