Special Education Students a Focus in “Bully”

By Alyson Klein — April 11, 2012 2 min read
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Two students with Asperger syndrome—an autism spectrum disorder that can make it tough to interact in social situations—are featured heavily in “Bully,” the new education shock-you-mentary, opening in wide release Friday.

The film opens with the grieving parents of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who committed suicide. And it closely follows Alex Libby, another student with Asperger’s who was repeatedly harassed by his fellow students at a Sioux City, Iowa, middle school.

The movie, which also includes a 16-year-old transgender student, among others, was meant to open the public’s eye to the problem of bullying in general.

Although the filmmakers give a lot of background information on both Tyler and Alex, including showing home-movies of both of them at young ages, the film itself makes no mention of their disabilities.

That was a deliberate choice, said Cynthia Lowen, a writer and producer on the film.

“It felt like his autism was being couched in such a way as to blame him for being different,” she said in an interview. “We didn’t want to continue the idea that targets of bullying bring it on themselves. They should be safe and protected at school. That was really the point we were trying to make.”

Bullying is a problem for lots of kids, but students with disabilities are often special targets, said James H. Wendorf, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, during a discussion last night at the National Education Association, which screened the film in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers. He said while about 20 percent of students report being bullied, the number is a lot higher, more than 60 percent, for kids with disabilities. More on this here.

The movie also points to another problem: the difficulty some school officials have in handling bullying. In one scene, the parents of a child who committed suicide hold a town hall meeting—which no one from the school district attends.

And, in what’s arguably the film’s most pivotal sequence, Alex Libby’s parents visit the assistant principal’s office to report that their son is being victimized and harassed on the school bus. The assistant principal says, essentially, that the buses are notorious for bad behavior, and that she’ll try to do what she can.

The parents are unassuaged. They say the administrator made similar promises in the past to no avail. “She politician-ed us,” they say as they leave the school building.

Interestingly, Lee Hirsch, the film’s director, who was also on the NEA/AFT panel, said that the middle school Alex attended has a districtwide reputation for its autism program. But that didn’t stop Alex from facing harassment.

For more on the film, including the ratings controversy surrounding it, check out this story.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.