Eisenhower Middle School students went to the movies during the school day Tuesday, but they weren’t playing hooky.
The students viewed the movie “Bully” at Carmike Seth Childs 12 theater as a part of a community-building exercise in anti-bullying.
Bully, a 2011 movie, follows five kids and their families in Iowa over the course of a school year and includes the stories of two families who’ve lost children to suicide and a mother who waits to learn the fate of her 14-year-old daughter, incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus.
Eisenhower principal Greg Hoyt said he had watched the film twice prior to the Tuesday’s showings, calling it difficult to view. He said the school didn’t have regular classes Tuesday, devoting part of the school day to viewing the film and having discussions.
“The fact we’re loading up on buses and going to the other side of town to the movie theater is a big deal,” he said. “That in itself will emphasize a level of importance with the students.”
Eisenhower was the first school in USD 383 to implement the Olweus Bully Prevention Program in 2006. The Olweus program, which is now used through all USD 383 schools, is a national program that aims to reduce and prevent bullying problems and improve peer relations.
Hoyt said one of the program’s goals is to build empathy in students who aren’t personally bullied. From there, he said it’s about getting the students to respond properly when they see bullying.
In an October 2012 survey, Hoyt said 93 percent of students responded that they felt sorry when they saw a student not being treated well, but only 17 percent said they tried to help somebody not being treated well.
“The powerful thing about this movie is that it can really help with the empathy-building piece,” Hoyt said. “It’s a powerful documentary. It’s sobering to say the least.”
Tuesday’s activity started with Michael Welsh, executive director of Cornerstone Family Counseling. “I heard about the movie when it first came out in 2011,” he said. “I was interested in it but it never came to Manhattan.”
After watching the DVD in February, Welsh said he wanted to provide a chance for at least one school to screen the movie. He said he started calling friends and formed a committee, remarking about the similarities to how students need to bond together to prevent bullying’s effects.
“It’s kind of like following the message of the movie,” he said. “It started with one. (I) ran with it, and now we’re having more than 400 students in the theaters watching the movie.”
Bullying and the effort to reduce it has gained higher profile in recent years as coverage of suicides related to bullying has increased. The effort to prevent bullying has been ongoing in schools even before increased awareness among the public, but there have been shifts in both what bullying looks like and how it is dealt with.
Welsh said he has seen how students are affected by bullying during the changing times. He said technology has enabled bullying to be a 24/7 issue that’s more visible to everybody.
“When I was a kid, if it was at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, I don’t have to deal with it until the beginning of the week,” he said. “Now, they can’t get away from it.”
Hoyt said something that’s different about the Olweus program than other anti-bullying efforts is that it provides a platform for weekly discussions.
“More than probably anything else, the important issue of Olweus is addressing issues of climate and bullying each week in small groups,” he said.
Hoyt said the program has also taught the adults intervention strategies. “Once upon a time, you sat the bully and the victim down and try to mediate,” he said. “We know from research that it’s a terrible idea because you’re victimizing children when you do that.”
Hoyt said he appreciates the efforts by Welsh to include a number of organizations and people in the community. He said the theater provided the venue for the film as well as popcorn and soda, and T-shirts have been donated.
“One of the areas we struggle with is getting community buy in and support,” Hoyt said. “Schools can sometimes feel isolated in this issue.”
Welsh said it’s important to realize problems are often deeper than a parent might realize.
“Adults are only going to figure out 1 out of 25 times something occurs,” he said. “If you’re hearing that from your kid, that’s the tip of the iceberg in regards to what kids are saying.”
Welsh said Tuesday’s activity is designed to provide a way for parents to engage with conversations with children.
“All of it is aimed at creating a discussion with family and being intentional about having the conversation with kids,” Welsh said. “We have to be the adults and bring the discussion to the kids.”