Before filmmaker Lee Hirsch began shooting the documentary "Bully," he walked into a school board meeting in Sioux City, Iowa, and asked for permission to film students and staff for months — while retaining full editorial control.
"We need to be in buses, classrooms, in the halls for one year," Hirsch recalls telling officials that evening in 2008. "And we're going to tell an honest story about what we find. And they agreed."
"Bully" aims to show what teen bullying looks like in contemporary America, in all its cruelty. Shot beginning in 2009 in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi, the film focuses on five families coping with the the daily abuse their kids experience under the noses of sometimes apathetic administrators. Two of those families lost sons to suicide.
To capture incredibly personal details, Hirsch — best known for his anti-apartheid chronicle, "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony" — needed unlimited access. Surprisingly, worried parents, tormented students and image-conscious educators were so willing to grant it.
As "Bully" prepares to open April 13, a parent, a school official and a once-bullied high schooler explain why they did.
The parents of 12-year-old Alex Libby — a gangly, irrepressibly innocent Sioux City boy who has become the de facto face of "Bully" — believed the experience might help their withdrawn son. Alex has Asperger's and at the time of filming was mired in a two-year depression, his mother said.
"He wouldn't communicate with us about what we could do, if it was our fault or how we could fix it," Jackie Libby explained during a recent phone conversation. "We just kind of talked about it and thought if Lee followed him around, maybe we could figure out what it was. . . . An outsider would be able to say, 'Well, this is why your kid's depressed.' And sure enough, that's what ended up happening."
"Bully" reveals the intensity of Alex's abuse, particularly on the bus. Hirsch's cameras captured kids bashing his head into seats, stabbing him with pencils and threatening to kill him. Things got so dire that Hirsch ultimately showed the more disturbing footage to staff members at Sioux City's East Middle School and to Alex's parents.
"We were devastated and angry that no one was telling us this was happening, including Alex," says Jackie Libby.
Of course, that footage surfaced only because Hirsch had so much freedom to film at East Middle. Paul Gausman, superintendent of the Sioux City Community School District, says officials granted access, with approvals from individual parents, because of a long-standing partnership with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention. A partner on the film, the institute has spent years helping implement anti-bullying curricula in Sioux City schools.
"We had hoped that some of our success and some of our triumphs to prevent bullying would have made it into the film," Gausman admits.
But Alex's seventh-grade story ultimately took center stage, and the ineffectiveness of East Middle's response provides "Bully" with its most anger-inducing moments. One assistant principal — who empathizes with the Libbys after seeing evidence of Alex's daily assault but assures them that the atmosphere on those bus lines is "as good as gold" — emerges as the inept pseudo-villain. (That assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, would not comment for this story.)
"Am I disappointed that certain scenes in the film show us in a less-than-positive light? Of course I am," Gausman says. "But I believe this district was willing to stick our chin out there just a little bit because this is that important. We must engage in discussions about this."
Meanwhile, in Tuttle, Okla., Kelby Johnson — a gay high-schooler who was mocked by teachers and had to stop playing basketball because teammates could not stand to be near her — told her story. Hirsch didn't have access to Johnson's school, so her experience was conveyed in interviews.
She agreed to speak openly for the documentary because it gave her an outlet to channel her frustrations into action.
"I wanted to stay (in Tuttle), and I wanted to fight," said Johnson, now 19. "And Lee kind of gave me that opportunity."
More than two years later, most of these willing "Bully" participants find themselves in new places.
Johnson dropped out and earned her GED. She now lives in Oklahoma City and is hoping to attend college.
The Libbys initially sent Alex to a school across town, where things improved, but almost too much, according to Jackie Libby.
"I know this sounds horrible, but they were going out of their way to please him," she says. "My husband and I would often talk about how unfair it was to all the other kids in the community who were having problems. They were just helping Alex because he's in a movie."
Before the 2011-12 school year, the Libbys moved to an Oklahoma City suburb not far from where the Johnsons live. Now 15, Alex is thriving, making friends and raising his once-failing grades to A's and B's.
"He hugs people again," Libby says. "He didn't hug anybody for almost four years. I mean, that's — I don't know how to put into words how grateful we are for that."
Back in Sioux City, the release of "Bully" has prompted plenty of feedback, both positive and negative.
"I'll be honest with you, some of the feedback that we've received has been riddled with bullying," Gausman says.
But the movie's revelations have also led to installation of audio and video systems on every school bus, an increase in adult aides riding the routes, and a regular monitoring system to detect misbehavior before it escalates into bullying.
Alex's mom still feels anger over her son's treatment and wants the school system to be even more proactive.
"I wish they would just stand up and be like, 'Okay, we have a problem,' " she says. "You know, let's get together as a community and figure out how we can fix it."
Responded Gausman: "That you have found someone who states we are not perfect is only stating the obvious. I want to do what we can to get better."
Everyone interviewed for this article said they would still participate in "Bully" if faced with the decision again.
"I honestly believe that as we went through this whole process — it was painful . . . but we're better because of it," Gausman says. "You asked me if I'd do it again — yes. And that's why."