A Minute With...

Dorothy Espelage, expert on educational psychology and bullying

3/29/2012  8:00 am

The decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to give the new documentary “Bully” an R rating (for extensive profanity) angered many people and generated a grassroots campaign, led by a teen who was a target of bullying, to lower the rating to PG-13 so that preteens could view the movie without their parents. The film, to be released to select theaters March 30 without an MPAA rating, chronicles a year in the lives of several children who are targets of bullying and the responses by their families and schools to the problem.

Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois and internationally recognized expert on bullying, was invited by the filmmaker to see the movie before its release. She spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the film.

What’s your opinion about the controversy surrounding the MPAA’s R rating for the movie?

image of professor dorothy espelageIt’s an interesting controversy because you could look at “The Hunger Games,” and that’s evidently extremely violent, and it’s rated PG-13 (“The Hunger Games,” released March 23, is based on the novel by Suzanne Collins about a dystopian society that forces teens to fight to the death on television; some youth are viewing the movie on school field trips).

What is your overall impression of the documentary itself?

“Bully” is tough to watch because it’s very realistic about bullied kids’ lives and how teachers and school administrators handle bullying – or fail to handle it, keep it going, deny it, distort it.

There’s a scene in the movie in which other kids on the bus are just pummeling one boy, and a staff member at the school responds to his parents’ complaints by saying ‘I’ve ridden that bus, and it’s a safe bus.’

I think the film shows the complexity of bullying and how ingrained it is in our society in some ways, and that there continue to be generations of teachers, staff members and administrators who are completely in denial about their involvement.

As a viewer, I was left feeling hopeless and helpless after watching it. The film leaves you despairing, ‘So what can we do?’ I think most of the experts who prescreened the film felt that way, so there’s been some movement to produce some short how-to guides for schools to help them address it.

Do you have any reservations about the film?

My only fear with the movie is that people aren’t going to identify with one of the main characters who’s being bullied. When you show these kinds of movies to kids, they tend to blame the victims, saying, ‘Well, of course he’s bullied. Look at him.’  So I can see parents and kids responding that way. But then, how can they not see the sadness and pain that bullying inflicts on these kids?

My sense is that the movie isn’t really going to help us unless we start thinking seriously about how we can create safe schools by addressing bullying as a relationship and societal problem.

But we also must recognize that our schools are in crisis, in an era of economic recession where resources are limited, and teachers are under extreme pressure to ‘teach to the test.’

Do we need to penalize this behavior more – suspend bullies from school and impose criminal charges?

Bullying is being criminalized with the passage of legislation in various states. In New Jersey, teachers who know about bullying and fail to do anything face possibly losing their teaching licenses, so there’s going to be more impetus to resort to suspensions or expulsions. School suspension of bullies is a biased approach in that ethnic minority kids are more likely to be suspended.

In my own work, I question the extent to which we as a society really want to address this problem. We continually promote anti-bullying programs that aren’t working or have very limited efficacy.

Where are current anti-bullying initiatives falling short?

It’s clear that these programs are missing something, and I think what they’re missing is the recognition of societal acceptance of bullying.

The film explores adults’ roles in the situation, but there’s very little in bullying-prevention programs that addresses adults’ attitudes toward bullying.

Most of the legislation that’s being passed is being driven by parents who’ve lost bullied children to suicide, so the solutions proposed are not based on science or evidence.

We continually promote anti-bullying programs that aren’t working or have very limited efficacy. There’s no recognition that bullies need intervention as well. Bullies really are a product of their environment, and bullying works for them – it makes them popular and increases their social status. So the notion that bullying is maladaptive is not true.

If we continue to have knee-jerk reactions – criminalizing bullying behavior and not recognizing that we have to address all of the adults’ and all of the kids’ attitudes and behaviors in those contexts – we’re going to continue to have the problems that we have.

Joseph Durlak at Loyola University and I wrote a brief for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning that addresses how schools might address some of the climate issues that foster bullying and how to create safer schools, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

It’s going to take a recognition that bullying has been around for a really long time. In some sense, it’s ingrained in the personality of Americans, and there’s a tendency to dismiss the plight of the victim, to find a flaw in that victim that explains why they’re being targeted, and that’s what I fear this movie is going to do.

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