Chen Kong-Wick, who has the daunting-sounding job title of Violence Prevention Program Manager for the Oakland public schools, was in the lobby of the Jack London Cinema last week, explaining the district’s newest efforts to take on bullying in the schools. Suddenly she stopped. A middle-aged lady was hurrying by, holding a tissue to her face, en route to the restroom.
“There’s a parent that’s affected by it,” Kong-Wick said as she nodded toward the woman. “The movie is pretty powerful.”
Kong-Wick identified the woman as a parent, one of a handful of chaperones accompanying several busloads of students to the theater early last Wednesday. MetWest High School, Roosevelt Middle School, and United for Success Middle School sent scores of students to see the screening of the nationally-renowned documentary “Bully.”
The documentary, directed by Lee Hirsch, depicts the lives of six young characters, as camera crews capture first-hand accounts of them being bullied. For one of the characters, Alex, the the film crew chooses to intervene and turn the tapes in to school officials because of the severity of the abuse he has been receiving from other students on the yellow school bus.
As the movie showed clips of Alex being punched and called names like “Fishface,” the children in the darkened theater reacted as if they too were passengers on that bus. From the audience, one middle-schooler’s voice could be heard, asking loudly and to no one in particular: “Why didn’t the bus driver do something?”
The theater visit was part of a three-week Oakland Unified School District program called The Bully Project. From September 17 through October 4, most of the district’s middle and high school students will have a chance to view the documentary. The project was made possible by Donor’s Choice, an online charity that connects students in need to individual donors; the charity is a major funder of The Bully Project.
Through Donor’s Choice, the Bully Project was able to work with Oakland School Superintendent Tony Smith, and provide funding for 14,000 schoolchildren to attend the movie, as a nationwide initiative to encourage a million students to see the movie by the end of 2012.
After the Oakland school board members approved a new anti-bullying policy earlier this month, teaming up with The Bully Project campaign served as an ideal starting point for the district’s own initiative. “Our hope is that the opportunity of this movie will launch a conversation,” said Kong-Wick, who directly oversees the district’s initiative.
The school district is trying to reach students in several ways at once, Kong-Wick said. Large-scale events, like assemblies and school gatherings, will be supplemented by a more focused approach aimed at what officials believe is the 15 percent of Oakland students who need that kind of closer intervention. Officials are also planning one-on-one meetings and counseling sessions for students who have been victims of bullying—or who are doing the bullying.
Oakland public schools’ Behavioral Health Coordinator Barbara McClung said the film initiative was an invitation from the filmmakers. “They contacted the superintendent and made the offer,” McClung said. “He accepted the challenge.”
McClung made it clear that getting this project to work wasn’t as simple as just purchasing movie tickets online. “We have approximately 14,000 students who are seeing the movie in 14 days,” said McClung, as she took a brief break from directing students and chaperones in and out of the lobby. “It’s going great.”
Everything from accommodating handicapped students to separating gang members has been accounted for, she said. “If folks had really dug in around that fear—like, ‘We can’t have the Norteños and the Sureños on the same day’—it could have really put a kabosh on the whole thing,” McClung said. “But the students have been incredible.”
As the movie ended, students poured out of their seats and formed multiple single-file lines facing the exit signs of the theater. Tears came to the eyes of Alicia Williams, a mother who attended the movie with her daughter. “I had a hard time,” Williams said about her experience in watching the 98-minute documentary. “Because it was real. It was moving.”
Williams’ daughter, Sierra Passmore, a soft-spoken 7th grader from United for Success, stood at her mother’s side. What might she do, she was asked, to ease bullying of other students? “Make the bullies think about it by talking,” she said.
Mandatory pre-discussions and debriefs are part of the curriculum packets that McClung said all sites are using; the packets are provided by Facing History and Ourselves, a worldwide organization that specializes in combating prejudices through educational programs.
Kong-Wick likened the big picture to Kelby, a character in the documentary movie who initially took a stance against the discrimination she encountered in her small town, but soon saw that she needed the support of more entities to conquer the issue of bullying. “It takes multiple people, multiple stakeholders, at various stages,” Kong-Wick said. “And this is what is happening.”