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FILM REVIEW: "Bully" has a powerful impact on audiences

SAN DIEGO – On the same day that it was announced that the documentary “Bully” would receive a PG-13 rating, community members packed an auditorium of UltraStar Mission Valley Theatre to watch an advance screening of the film.

The documentary, which opened in select theaters throughout the United States last week, made its debut in San Diego Thursday evening.

Audience members applauded when Stephen Delizo, a representative of Allied Integrated Marketing who organized the screening, said that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had decided earlier that day to give "Bully" a PG-13 rating, which will allow the film to be seen by youth and in schools.

Originally, MPAA had given the documentary an “R” rating due to strong language that is used in the film. Katy Butler, a bullied high school student from Michigan, delivered a petition with nearly 221,000 signatures to MPAA protesting its rating.

Initially, MPAA agreed to change the film to “no rating,” but then finally settled on “PG-13” on Thursday.

The film, by award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch, follows the lives of several families, most living in remote areas of the United States, who have been affected by bullying.

There is a family who lost a son to suicide; a 14-year old girl who was jailed for pulling a gun on her classmates after being continuously harassed; and other youth who face bullying and harassment each and every day.

Audience members seemed particularly disturbed by the actions of one middle school principal who seemed to have a “kids will be kids” mentality throughout the film, never doing anything to help students who came to her reporting that they were being harassed.

During the Q&A session that followed the film, one audience member asked, “Was she real? Was this an actor? How could they behave like that, knowing they were on film?”

Particularly interesting about the documentary was Hirsch’s depiction of the beautiful landscapes in the rural towns where the families lived. The imagery added an element of beauty and realness to the film, showing that these victims of bullying live in some of the most beautiful, supposedly safe places in the world, but do not feel secure in their own schools.

The film seemed to inspire and motivate the nearly 200 people in the audience, many leaving in tears after trying to process the shock they felt after seeing how these young children treat each other, and the neglectful actions of many school administrators.

Vinnie Pompei of San Diego State University’s Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL) was joined during the post-film Q&A session by Wendy Walsh, the California mother of Seth Walsh who took his life at the age of 13 after being continuously bullied and harassed for being gay.

Audience members, which included educators, parents, community activists, film-goers and a few youth, had numerous questions about how to get involved, what is being done, and where the responsibility lies in incidents of bullying.

In response to a parent’s concern that she did not feel welcome at her son’s school, Pompei said that creating a welcoming environment for parents who want to get involved at a school should be a goal of the school.

“Demand your right to be a parent and know what is going on at school,” Walsh said.

Another parent joined in the discussion saying that it is her experience that parents seem to “back off” from being involved in their child’s education once they reach middle school.

“This is a disservice to our children,” the parent said. “We try to give them freedom [when they reach middle school] but they don’t always have the tools they need when we do this. When my child reached middle school, I became more involved, and it made a difference because I could see what was going on.”

Parental involvement was a key issue in the discussion as Walsh said that it can be a part of solving the problem.

“When Seth was bullied, I called the bully’s parent and it put an end to that bully immediately,” Walsh recalled. “But some parents won’t do anything, so that is when you call school officials.”

Pompei said that the San Diego Unified School District in recent years has made great progress in protecting students who are being bullied and harassed, and hopes other districts will follow suit.

“In California, each district creates their own policies to handle bullying and harassment,” Pompei said. “State law protects all students but it is up to how the law is enforced on the local level.”

Seth’s Law -- AB 9 in California -- was recently signed and will go into effect in July. Walsh said this legislation will be put much more pressure on staff to report incidents, resulting in safer school environments.

Walsh hopes that the law will serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

More information about “Bully” is available HERE.

More information about the Seth Walsh Foundation is available HERE.

“Bully” opens April 13 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Ave.