Cynthia Lowen visited Elon University this month as part of a series of campus programs organized for “Anti-Bullying Week.”
Classrooms are reflections of what’s taking place outside the walls of a school, and according to one of the leading voices behind the critically acclaimed film “Bully,” to think harassment or physical assaults only happen in the confines of a school “is just not true.”
Cynthia Lowen, the co-filmmaker of a feature documentary following a year in the life of America’s bullying crisis, spoke April 12 to Elon Teaching Fellows in an afternoon guest lecture titled “Understanding Bullying: How, Where, Why & What We Can Do About It.”
Lowen’s classroom appearance followed public remarks the night before in which she touched upon many of the themes explored in a documentary that chronicled the lives of children who are bullied, and the cringe-inducing reactions of parents, teachers and administrators to the kids’ complaints.
She was quick on Friday to clarify that bullying is not a simple issue. “The child who is a bully over here may be a target over there,” Lowen said. “They may also be coming to school with other issues.”
Much of Lowen’s time with students in room 208 of the Belk Pavilion centered on the administrators’ responses to bullying she witnessed while filming the documentary. In some instances, she said, appropriate responses were noticeably absent. And there are a variety of reasons that school employees don’t recognize bullying.
Lack of professional development is one cause, Lowen said. There’s no money in the school systems’ budgets for programs, teachers are already “up to their ears” in standardized testing concerns, and when so much work is already taken home at night, it’s difficult to worry about one or two particular students.
That’s why strong leadership by school administrators is critical.
“Good leadership isn’t about a program. It’s about being able to help the people around you realize why something is a priority,” she said. The ability of a school to respond to bullying also depends on the character of those in charge. “When adults feel bullied themselves within the hierarchy of the school, where they don’t feel anyone else has their back, when a teacher goes to an assistant principal and says, ‘I just witnessed a bullying situation,’ what do you think is going to happen? Nothing.”
Lowen also discussed some of the puzzling responses she found in parents whose own children were victims of bullying. “It’s tough for parents to stop and engage with this,” she said. “It can be humiliating for them. They can say, ‘What did I do wrong that my child is being target? Did I not give them confidence?’”
She praised the Elon Teaching Fellows for their interest in the subject matter and for the questions they posed of her.
“This is part of your training and I think it’s awesome,” Lowen told the future educators seated before her. “I hope you’ll be able to bring a lot of insights into the schools you’re going into that don’t have the tools and resources and information you’re use to.”
Lowen worked with Emmy and Sundance Award-winning director Lee Hirsch to film “Bully” over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. Drawing from the film’s success, Lowen and her team created The Bully Project social action campaign, a collaborative effort in partnership with multiple organizations, foundations, brands and corporate sponsors that aims to equip parents, kids, educators and advocates with tools to transform their communities.
Through her work on “Bully,” Lowen has lectured extensively on bullying and school climate, as well as the social impact of documentary films and the future of trans-media projects, speaking at a variety of venues including The Open Society Foundations, the International Conference on Human Values, the Producers Guild of America, New York Women in Film and Television, Colorado College and the Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks series.
“Anti-Bullying Week,” which ran April 7-12, was co-sponsored by the Teaching Fellows, the School of Education, the Elon Academy, Communication Fellows, Elon College Fellows, Honors Fellows and Kappa Delta Pi. Events included a screening of Lowen’s film, “Bully,” as well as panel discussions and public remarks from Lowen herself in Whitley Auditorium.
“It’s an issue in the schools and the documentary caught our attention. It was also something our different sponsors could share enthusiasm about,” said Professor Glenda Crawford, director of the university’s Teaching Fellows program. “It’s also pertinent for our Fellows who are in schools now and their need to recognize the signs of bullying, their need to be advocates for children, and to do the right thing to curb it.”