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Alex Libby wanted a friend.
The scrawny 12-year-old boy with glasses sat in a yellow school bus in Sioux City, Iowa, and tried to talk with the boy next to him.
Shut up, the boy told Alex. He threatened to sexually assault Alex with a broomstick and bring a knife to school and kill Alex.
Later in the documentary “Bully,” students choke Alex, slam his head into bus seats and slug him in the back.
Such scenes from the movie have provoked new attention to the problem of bullying in schools across the country as well as locally.
Free screenings for students and adults have been held or are planned in Sioux City, Omaha and Lincoln.
“The goal is to just wake people up, make people aware that this is an issue and there's something people can do about it,” Diane Gonzolas, spokeswoman for Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, said of a city-sponsored screening there next Saturday.
Local psychologists and educators praised the film for accurately depicting the daily lives of students who are targeted by bullies.
School administrators and bullying experts say the movie can help stop bullying by reminding those who see “Bully” to be more aware of student comments and interactions.
“The movie is incredibly important. It really adds to the national conversation about this issue,” said Susan Swearer, professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Bullying Research Network.
“Bully” chronicles five families affected by bullying. Two children killed themselves after being bullied. Three other kids are followed during the 2009-10 school year.
The Sioux City Community Schools hosted a screening in November for about 1,700 people at the Sioux City Orpheum. Paul Gausman, superintendent of the Sioux City Community Schools, and another administrator addressed the audience after the film. A panel of community leaders took questions from the audience.
Districts in the Omaha metropolitan area don't have plans to send teachers or students to local showings of the movie, which is rated PG-13. Most districts said they have anti-bullying programs in place.
Several local teachers and administrators were among the 450 people who attended two Omaha screenings hosted by the Anti-Defamation League of the Plains States.
Allison Nields cried during much of the 98-minute film at Aksarben Cinema last week. Nields, 22, attended the movie with five fellow school psychology graduate students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The movie helps dispel long-held myths, Nields said, including that bullying is just “kids being kids.”
Students have a right to a quality education, Nields said. “These students were really being deprived,” she said.
Bullying is not normal behavior, and teachers and administrators must take action when a student reports being bullied, said the Rev. Tom Simonds, an associate education professor at Creighton University who specializes in school violence prevention.
Kids will stop telling adults about incidents if they don't believe adults will take action, Simonds said.
And students will share information about being bullied only if they trust the adult, said Kevin Riggert, principal at Elkhorn Ridge Middle School.
The movie served as a reminder that school leadership depends on relationships, said Riggert, who participated in a panel discussion after an Omaha screening.
Janae Donaldson took her 11-year-old daughter, Deja'nae Young, to the movie. For Donaldson, the film showed bullying can happen anywhere and to anyone.
Now her daughter is worried that other bullied kids might kill themselves.
Swearer, of UNL, said that although bullying can play a role in suicide, the victim typically also is affected by depressive disorders or other mental health problems.
“The simplistic connection between bullying and suicide is really unfortunate,” she said.
Tyler Long, who had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, had been teased and called names for years at his school in Georgia, his father said in the documentary.
Long, at the age of 17, hanged himself in a closet.
The topic of bullying often is oversimplified, said Swearer, who also does work with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation, which was formed in part to battle bullying and promote tolerance and empowerment for children.
Some people suggest fixing the problem by kicking the bullies out of school, Swearer said, but sometimes the bullies themselves have been bullied.
To prevent problems, parents should set up times to listen to their kids, and everyone can be more accepting of others, Swearer said.
“There are lots of complex factors that play into this, and when we don't try to understand those, we aren't doing anyone a good service,” she said.
The Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in North Sioux City, S.D., asked the Sioux City school district to participate in the film. The institute and the district have partnered on anti-bullying programs for about a dozen years, said Gausman, Sioux City's superintendent.
Gausman said the filmmakers were transparent with the district about their plans. Many other districts had turned down the filmmakers' request, he said, but Sioux City said yes.
During one scene, Alex's mother, Jackie Libby, tells school officials, “He is not safe on that bus.”
“I've been on that bus,” a school assistant principal replies. “They are just as good as gold.”
The assistant principal also asks another administrator to look into what's happening on the bus. The documentary shows multiple students being interviewed as part of the investigation.
“We are not proud of everything you see in that film related to the Sioux City Community Schools. I am proud of the school board to be courageous to let the filmmakers in,” said Gausman, who has seen the film 10 times, including at a screening held at the White House.
Since the taping of the documentary two years ago, Alex Libby, who has Asperger's syndrome, and his family have moved from Sioux City to Oklahoma.
The Sioux City district has made numerous changes, including adding video and audio devices to every bus and paying staff members to review portions of the recordings every day, Gausman said.
The district also has continued its K-12 anti-bullying curriculum. The district recently won an award from the Waitt Institute for its anti-bullying programs.
“We know that success will come if we move beyond the emotion to positive action,” Gausman said. “That's the whole reason we participated in this.”
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