Bobby Johnson, father of a bullied child
David Peters, licensed family psychotherapist
Related Story: 'Bully' Doc Stirs Discussion
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A film opens in San Diego this week that takes on the disturbing subject of bullying in school. Many grownups know that fights, humiliations and insults during school days with follow a person through life. Until recently, bullying has been considered just part of growing up. The story of what parents and educators are doing to change that attitude is told in the new documentary Bully. My guests, David Peters is here, a license plated family psychotherapist with a private practice in mission valley. He's worked with children and teens in schools as well as mental health treatment centers. Welcome to the show.
PETERS: Good to see you again, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Bobby Johnson is on the line. He's one of the parents who appears in this documentary. Welcome to the show.
JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: David, you saw a preview of the film. What was your initial reaction?
PETERS: Well, this is a difficult film to watch. It's a tragically sad film, but a very important film. None of it was material that I was unaware of, and I remember in childhood and high school watching bullying go on. But this is an important film. It's graphic, it's not easy to look at. But I do think that parents and educators, school administrators should all be watching this film, as well as students because people need to wake up. There is a violent situation going on in every school in the country in pockets, in corner, in classrooms, that is veiled from our eyes. And people are being seriously hurt by it.
CAVANAUGH: What types of bullying are on view in this documentary?
PETERS: In the documentary, it's emotional abuse as well as physical abuse. Some of it is just cruel teasing that gets out of hand and crushes the ego of the child. And some of it is public humiliation through repeated physical assault, over and over again. And this is the stuff you see in a school in you walk through it with your eyes open.
CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the most tragic stories in the film is about a child who committed suicide. What were the circumstances that led to that?
PETERS: Oh, I don't remember the circumstances in the movie itself that led to that.
CAVANAUGH: It was an 11 year-old.
>> Yes, it was. And I'll say it's possible for kids of all ages to be crushed and to take that way out when they're confronted with the impossible situation of being bullied and having no parent or no administrator understand what they're going through. There's a certain desperation that occurs. And eventually they feel I don't matter, I don't exist. And that's where a child's most likely to do some self-harm, to try and escape from reality itself.
CAVANAUGH: Now, most kids of course survive being bullied. But it can leave emotional scars that follow you through life. Can it?
PETERS: Yes. Definitely. Bullying is a natural part of going to school. And people often say, well, you know, bullying goes on, people just have to get tough enough. Well, spousal abuse and child sexual assault are a common part of our society also. And they're not acceptable. We have to intervene. Bullying is not just someone's feelings getting hurt. On a minor level, we've all been teased before, we've all had our feelings hurt. What you see in the movie is what I actually remember in high school and grade school is that some kids are more vulnerable and get picked on viciously. And bullying is actually damaging to the brain and to the body. When someone is exposed to chronic stress, the court sollevels surge through the bloodstream in the brain actually causing damage to the chromosome chains themselves. Social humiliation lowers your immunity to disease and shortens your life span. You can actually sustain physical damage from being repeatedly humiliated in a situation where you can't get out. There's an incredible example if you watch carefully in the movie where a kid is being physically abused over and over again. And he seems to go quiet and still. It's as if he's given up trying to control the situation, and they're still hitting him and hitting him. And later on, his mother is scalding him for allowing this, and saying how did you feel? Didn't you want to stop that? And he says honestly, I don't know what I feel anymore. And that's evidence of he entered a disassociative state. He really doesn't feel anything. He's cut off from his emotions. And that's a sign that he's actually sustaining damage to his psyche in this event.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. KPBS reporter Beth ammando spoke with the director of bully when he was in San Diego last year.
(Audio Recording Played)
NEW SPEAKER: There's no experts in the film, there's no talking heads, you just spend the time you're in the movie experiencing what it's like, and from there, it's a much easier connection to make a choice to change one's behavior. It's open in a way that it lets people come to their own conclusions with the film.
CAVANAUGH: , and that was the voice of director Lee Hersh, director of the documentary, Bully. David Peters, you just described a situation where a child has been bullied so much, that they don't know how they feel anymore. Upon but can kids who are bullied become violent and cause injury to themselves or others?
PETERS: Most certainly. When you put an adult or a teen or a child under this much social stress, and it's true with adults also, there's two directions. One I call an implosion, where what we see in the film most often, someone collapses into depression, into social isolation, into physical illness, and deep depression. The other is explosion where they decide I'm going to defend myself. Frequently, school shooters we find in the news have been bullied, they have been socially humiliated or maybe humiliated at home and school at the same time. And there's a moment where they decide I can't take this any longer, I'm going to fight back. And they can't fight back just a little bit or just a little bit more because there's too many people against them. They need overwhelming force, and they become violent with a gun, perhaps, or with a bomb perhaps. There's a scene in the movie where a a girl can't tolerate, she takes the parents' gun with her to school, and pulls the gun out on the bus. And they have this on the film, showing this live action happening, that she pulls the gun out. She's then almost punished, she's arrested actually, and kept in juvenile detention for a while. But she's the victim of bullying desperately trying to survive and gets accused of being the criminal because she brought the gun to try and defend herself.
CAVANAUGH: Bobby Johnson is one of the parents who appears in the documentary. The film shows what happens to Bobby Johnson's daughter, Kelby, when she revealed she was gay. Here's a clip from the movie.
NEW SPEAKER: They made it very clear that I wasn't welcomed back to school. When I opened my locker, there was a note that said faggots aren't welcomed here. And the teacher was calling role, and said boys, then he said girls, then he paused and said Kelby.
CAVANAUGH: Bobby Johnson, thank you for joining us today. I'm wondering, did you know that your daughter was going through the kind of bullying she was in school?
JOHNSON: Yes, when she decided to come out as gay in the town, we had that discussion in the family because we wanted her to understand the implications of that decision, and some of the things she could possibly go through as a result of that. So once she did make that decision, we made that together, as a family we kept the lines of communication open very clearly with her. And I was thinking in some regards, we were lucky as a family in that this was something that we anticipated. A lot of these family vs no idea that this is going on.
JOHNSON: So throughout the process, Kelby was very open with us about the things she was going through, and that allowed us to stay very involved with the school in regards to continuous meetings and discussions about the things that were happening.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of help did you get from the school?
JOHNSON: We received no help from the school. And that's why we ultimately made a decision not long into her junior year to remove her from the school. We felt like we could no longer control the situation to a degree that we were fearful of her physical and her mental well-being there: And a particular instance, one of the clips from the movie, there's a situation where one of the teachers of talking about how they used to burn homosexuals at the stake, and this discussion, what's happening in the classroom setting, and some of the other children started laughing about the subject while Kelby was in the room. And when we went to discuss that with the principle the next morning and relayed the story about what happened to him, the reaction was well, were the comments directed at her? Implying that as long as the comments the teacher made were not directed at Kelby, there was nothing wrong with that discussion. So it became very clear to us rather quickly that the support was going to be nothing from either the school itself or the district.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think, Bobby, this film is helping to do?
JOHNSON: We felt hopeless when the decision was made to withdraw Kelby from school, we felt helpless as parents at that point. One of the things that you feel a strong urge to do as a parent is to always be there and protect your child. So when the opportunity to participate in this movie came along, we felt like not only was this our chance to speak out and stand up for something that we believe in, but to give others out there -- there's got to be millions of families across the country going through the same thing we're going through, and not getting any support. We felt like this was our opportunity to speak out on our behalf, give ourselves a voice, but also give a voice to those who don't have the same opportunity.
CAVANAUGH: This film originally got an R rating, which would make it very difficult for kids to see. It has since gotten a PG13. Is this an important film for kids to see?
PETERS: Yes, I really do think it's an important film for kids. My fear is the only kids who are going to go are the kids who are already sympathetic to the issue. It's hard to get the mean kids to go to a movie where they're going to be talked about in this manner. Therefore if I were a superintendent of schools, I'd say let's get the film and play it in each school, in the school auditorium, let's get teachers talking about it. But I think it's more important for adults, the parents and for teachers and administrators to see this film because it's -- we are in charge. The grownups are in charge, the kids can't change this themselves because every year there's new kids entering the school. It's the adults who sato set a norm, a policy, a standard, and a social order to prevent bullying.
CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned a lot while ago in our conversation about intervention. That the society can intervene even though this is the kind of thing that happens all the time. School officials, parents, adults, can intervene and try to stop it. What are effective forms of intervention for bullying?
PETERS: Well, honestly what I would recommend is that we get anthropologists and sociologists and social psychologists on board to help design programs. It is the anthropologists and social psychologists who happened how these things happen. It's not a case of one or two mean kids picking on a couple of vulnerable kids. It's an entire social situation where there is no adult present who's enforcing the social order. The book lord of the flies comes to mind.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, right
PETERS: Where there's no adults present, and the children's society develops by itself, and it becomes very, very cruel because children are not socialized enough to be able to handle themselves. And so you need a school that overtly teaches values and social standards, and where the adults, the teachers and others are openly involved with the students on a continuous basis and taught that they are part of the process. There's a scene in the movie where the bus driver is driving while kids are almost having a riot in the back of the bus, and she's experiencing, well, I just drive the bus. I can't enforce what goes on in the back of the bus. And thesis are tragic circumstances where adults really feel like they're not really responsible. But we have to set policies where they are responsible. And administrators and teachers need to be overtly, purposefully fought about how bullying takes place and when to intervene. There are programs in some schools where they're building peer intervention groups where students are taught when they see bullying happen to gather friends and confront the bully as a group. And that's an important intervention there. Of we can develop interventions like that.
CAVANAUGH: Bobby Johnson, the school that Kelby transferred to, were things better for her there?
JOHNSON: We actually pulled had he ever out of school her junior year. And she's gotten her GED and has accepted a 12-week internship in Washington DC beginning next month.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's exciting. So you must be very proud of her
JOHNSON: Yes, we are. One thing we've tried to impress upon our children is that we don't raise victims. So I've been -- I've worked very hard to Kelby to get her to understand it's not necessarily what happens to you but what you do with it. So she's been very dangerous in putting her life out there in this film and now using what has happened with the film and the opportunities that have come to her as a result of that. Her internship will actually be spent with GLSEN in Washington DC learning about the safe schools initiative, and lobbying members of Congress in an attempt to get that initiative passed.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that this film has a website, thebullyproject.com, and the documentary, Bully, opens in San Diego this Friday, April 13th. Thank you both very much for speaking with us.
PETERS: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you.