For Teenagers, "Bully" Is Tough to Watch, but Important to Discuss

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Some New York City families are using the school vacation to take outings around town. A few have chosen to bring their teens to the new and much-discussed documentary film, "Bully."

The documentary profiling students victimized by bullies, and families of children who committed suicide in response to bullying, will go into wider release Friday now that the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to give it a PG-13 rating instead of an R in exchange for removing a few obscenities.

Despite the rating change, the film is hard to watch because of raw footage including that of a teenage boy being taunted and threatened on his daily school bus ride. But the challenging material is what made Guy Liotto, 14, interested in seeing the movie.

"I heard about the film, and they wanted to make a big impact against the bullying and bring up the subject to see if they could make a change," he said, after seeing the movie at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan with his mother and older sister.

Guy attends Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, and said he has never seen any bullying there, or at his old elementary school in the West Village. Nor did his sister Nicole, who graduated from Roosevelt.

Their mother, Jackie Liotto, credits that largely to efforts to make students aware of the problem.

"You just want to make them sensitive so if someone else is going through something you want them to reach out,” she said.

But the problem was much more real to Justin Esposito, 14, who came from Queens to watch the same afternoon showing of "Bully" with his parents. He said he was picked on at his old Catholic school.

“I wouldn’t call it bullying on that level, but my old group of friends in my elementary school, we grew apart and they made fun of me," he said. "I eventually broke away from them."

Justin now attends Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, and said he's happy there. His mother, Nora, said that, like the children in the film, Justin struggled with whether to tell his school at the time.

"We chose not to go that route, even though there were instances happening in the school," she said. "Justin thought it would escalate and make things worse."

Thankfully, she said, the problem wasn't bad enough to require more intervention. But she said the film is a reminder that parents need to monitor what's happening to their children, socially.

She and Justin were deeply affected by the story of Alex, the boy on the bus. Alex is viciously ridiculed, threatened and beaten while riding the school bus, and doesn’t complain to his family to or the school.

"You can tell he’s trying so hard to make friends that he would, like, let the kids be mean to him if it makes him feel like they’re his friends," Justin said.

Chriss Reyes, 13, who came from Brooklyn to see "Bully" at the Angelika, said he felt inspired to take personal action.

He mentioned a boy in his seventh grade class at P.S. 332 Charles H. Houston in East New York who has been pushed around and bullied, and said some kids took the student's clothes.

Now, he said, he wants to “be a friend, talk to him, take him out sometimes.”

After watching "Bully," the Liottos and the Espositos said they thought schools should hold assemblies and meetings for parents to combat bullying.

New state legislation called the Dignity for All Students Act requires schools to train staffers on how to combat many forms of intolerance and to report all incidents of harassment on their grounds and on school buses. New York City already has its annual Respect for All week to encourage compassion and educate students about bullying.

The national education group Facing History and Ourselves has created a guide to the film "Bully" for educators and others who work with young people. It can be downloaded directly from the organization's Web Site.

Peter Nelson, who directs the group's New York office, said "Bully" was a natural fit for the non-profit that has made lessons around the Holocaust, civil rights and other historical moments to teach about compassion and tolerance.

"It's up to each school how far they want to go with the film to educate the population," he said, noting that the film contains many painful scenes, but that children are usually up to the challenge of talking about such subjects. He said he hoped the film would change the culture of schools by fighting stereotypical attitudes such as "boys will be boys" and that bullying is just a rite of passage.

Facing History and Ourselves also helps run a small public high school in Midtown Manhattan. The school's teachers were scheduled to view the film this week and will take their students to see it after spring break.

The groups Donors Choose and the Bully Project are enabling teachers to take public school students to see the film.