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The high-profile documentary “Bully,” released in limited U.S. cities Friday, features Sioux City’s decade-long anti-bullying program and a Sioux City student who moved after being harassed repeatedly, especially on the school bus.
The Sioux City district plans to show the film at schools, incorporating a curriculum now under development, said spokeswoman Alison Benson. Other Iowa districts are weighing use of the film as a teaching tool.
The film follows the stories of five bullying victims. “Bully” shows Alex Libby, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, when he was a seventh-grader at Sioux City East Middle School. The filmmakers recorded a student smashing Alex’s head into a bus seat in 2009.
The documentary shows Alex’s mother, Jackie Libby, telling school officials: “He is not safe on that bus.”
It also portrays Sioux City officials as downplaying the threat.
“I’ve been on that bus,” a school assistant principal responds. “They are just as good as gold.”
The Libby family has since moved to Oklahoma.
Benson said the Sioux City district has been a national leader in the fight against bullying. But, she added, “You cannot say bullying doesn’t exist in schools.”
“We knew something might come up,” Benson said of the production crews’ visits to three Sioux City schools. “But we thought it was more important to have the conversation nationally about bullying than to worry about what might be filmed.”
That’s why the district is looking to arrange viewings at schools.
“Children need to have a deep conversation,” Benson said. “It’s a community-based issue. Any school that shows this film should talk with the children about what they saw and what they can do.”
The movie, directed by Lee Hirsch, originally received an “R” rating for profanity, leading to petition drives and appeals by Hollywood stars. Now it’s unrated, but that means many chain movie theaters won’t show it.
The trailer says 13 million kids will be bullied in the United States this year.
“The problem is real,” the narrator says. “The problem is being ignored.”
The film shows parents in various school districts pleading for their children’s safety, and officials making assurances that all is OK.
“Kids will be kids. Boys will be boys. They are just cruel at this age,” an official says. A parent describes a student getting punched, strangled and sat on. The film shows some of this.
Benson has seen the documentary three times, but won’t comment on whether she considers it fair to Sioux City’s schools. A special screening there Nov. 1 drew 1,600 people.
It was unclear Friday when the movie will next be shown in Iowa. Fleur Cinema general manager John Peterson said the Des Moines theater hopes to show the film if it’s offered.
“If I had to take a guess today, I would say Des Moines might get it in late April or early May,” Peterson said.
If the film’s box office results are huge this weekend, the Weinstein Co. may want to expand the film to 800 screens quickly, Peterson said. If not, it may hit only 20 theaters.
Peterson said the ratings controversy has spurred interest, and he has received quite a few phone calls and emails asking about the film.
The Varsity Theater in Des Moines also hopes to show the film, said owner Denise Mahon.
The Sioux City district worked with Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in South Dakota for 12 years on anti-bullying efforts, receiving a prize from the institute recently.
As part of the effort, the district hosted Kirk and Laura Smalley, parents of 11-year-old Ty Field, another of the five bullying victims featured in the film. The Oklahoma boy shot himself after he was bullied. Two of the five students featured in the film killed themselves.
A boy had bullied Ty his entire sixth-grade year. As the school year wound down in 2010, the bully picked on Ty, who was sitting on bleachers with friends before school, according to media reports. Ty shoved back and got suspended.
His mother took him home and told him to do his chores and homework.
Instead, the boy took a .22-caliber pistol into his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head.
The grieving parents formed Stand for the Silent to battle bullying.
The Iowa Legislature in 2007 passed a law that requires districts to report bullying and what action was taken.
Bryce Amos, Des Moines schools’ executive director for learning services and secondary schools, said the district has no plans to use the documentary, but thought its distribution could help.
“The more people are aware of what’s going on, and how it can hurt kids, the better for us,” he said.
The district investigates all allegations of bullying, he said. In extreme cases, bullies are suspended. In fewer than 10 cases in the past four years, bullies have been reassigned to a different school, he said.
Des Moines, which has a middle school and high school anti-bullying curriculum, has no plans to show the film, but officials hope students, parents and others will be able to see the film locally, said district spokesman Phil Roeder.
Students at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines last month produced their own short films and public service announcements on how to handle bullying, Roeder said.
West Des Moines schools don’t plan to show the documentary this year, but might next year after reviewing the content, said spokeswoman Lauri Pyatt.
Jackie Libby recalls that she and her husband, Philip, once found their son Alex passed out in the front yard of their Sioux City home.
“He said some boys were slamming his head into a seat on the bus,” Jackie said. “We thought he made it up.”
Then Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary “Bully,” showed them a few seconds of footage showing Alex being assaulted by other students. “He feared for Alex’s safety,” Jackie said.
They learned that Alex had interrupted a school bus ride to tell a fellow student he hoped to be friends. The classmate not only firmly declined the invitation but also told Alex he would kill him with a knife and assault him with a broom handle, Jackie said in an interview Friday.
“He was assaulted every day,” and the Sioux City district didn’t do enough to stop it, Libby said from the family’s new home in Edmond, Okla.
“Bully,” released on Friday, shows a student slamming Alex’s head into a bus seat. The family asked for the school district’s camera footage from the bus and were told the camera wasn’t working. But a camera installed by the producers of “Bully” caught the whole thing.
“When we looked back on it, we just made so many mistakes because we didn’t know what was going on,” Jackie said. “We thought he was coming into being a teenager. We thought he was being mouthy and secretive and rebellious, but really he was just trying to cover up what was happening in school because he was embarrassed.”
Alex’s grades fell from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. He switched schools last fall in Sioux City, partway through his freshman year, and things were better, Jackie said. But the family still decided it was time to leave.
He has not faced abuse in Oklahoma, where school officials take a hard-line stance, she said, and his grades have skyrocketed.
At Sioux City, “We were treated like they wanted us to go away,” Jackie said. “They treated us like it wasn’t a problem. They wanted us to go somewhere else.”
Eventually, Alex told his parents the abuse had been going on since the beginning of sixth grade. His Asperger’s syndrome made it tough on him socially, his mother said.
Jackie said millions of children are being bullied, and their parents often don’t know. She hopes the documentary helps. “My son was assaulted every day,” Jackie said. “And we sent him into that. We felt horrible.”
Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman, who wasn’t available Friday, has shared statistics showing students in the district who witness bullying are now more likely to intervene.
“I am proud of our efforts,” he writes on the district’s website. “I am proud of our team’s willingness to do the work, and I welcome the conversation about where we have found success and where we can grow even stronger for each and every student.”
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Find out more about what makes The Scary Guy so scary. Watch CNN Presents at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.
Austin, Minnesota (CNN) — Schools worldwide book him to put a stop to bullying. One Minnesota community promised him $20,000 to get him to come to town for two weeks last fall.
He calls himself The Scary Guy, and his price tag can run as much as $6,500 a day. The Scary Guy is his legal name — we checked. It’s safe to say his presentation is unlike anything most students have ever seen. The kids love him, and many school officials sing his praises. But CNN learned not every past customer believes he offers a real solution to the difficult problem of bullying in America’s schools.
Beyond the strange name and the four-figure daily rate, what’s most eye-opening is how this in-demand bully prevention guru defies the squeaky clean image expected of educators. He’s no Mr. Rogers leading sweet sing-alongs in a sweater vest and tie — far from it. He’s a tough-talking former tattoo artist covered in ink.
Lacking formal academic credentials, The Scary Guy acknowledges his looks and his lesson plans are a bit unconventional.
Scary, as he likes to be called, delivers a shock-and-awe approach. Speaking before a packed auditorium of schoolchildren in Austin, Minnesota, he barfs up apples, groans and rubs his ink-stained belly and intentionally pokes fun at the shortest middle-schooler, the bald PE teacher and the “geek in the wheelchair.” He explains he’s demonstrating classic bullying behavior to make kids aware of the problem.
The entertaining antics are followed up with fist-pumping and a steely look as he delivers his takeaway: “You travel around on this world, and you put out hate and anger, and you cop an attitude, you’ll draw all this into your life wherever you go.”
Scary calls his performances “edu-tainment” — a way to grab the kids’ attention with humor and throw in a positive lesson at the same time. Playing the bully, he says, is how he role plays his young adult years when he would find fault with just about everyone.
When pressed for his strongest message about bullying, he says it’s to “show [kids] they have the power to make the choice to be who they want to be and not become what they see and hear around them.”
Kids seem to hang on to his every word, and schools and communities are buying into his act. Over the past 13 years, Scary says he has visited schools in 19 states, and he gets requests by countries worldwide. He’s even been booked by law enforcement and the U.S. military.
Some school administrators we talked to, however, wonder whether visiting outsiders like Scary are more than just “clanging bells,” as one Minnesota principal put it, rather than the culture change desperately needed in America’s schools.
“You can have these kinds of folks come in and they are, in a sense, a bit of a mercenary — a one-time, one-shot deal,” says Principal Kerry Juntunen of Hermantown, Minnesota. “Does that really change kids’ lives? And my answer is no.”
Scary visited Juntunen’s middle school last year. The cost was covered by a federal grant. Parts of Scary’s performance were positive, Juntunen says, but other parts were inappropriate enough to convince Juntunen he would never invite Scary back.
Juntunen recounts how Scary, in an attempt to show that hand-shaking and hugging is harmless, reached out to shake a student’s hand and sarcastically said, “Oh, that’s the best sex I’ve had all day!” to a room full of middle-schoolers.
After the crude comment, Juntunen says, he immediately knew his phone would light up. “Well, what got left with the kids?” he says, “The kids got, ‘Oh, that’s the best sex I’ve had all day,’ not that it’s OK to shake someone’s hand or to hug them.”
Scary says he was just role playing, and that most people find it funny.
In his interview with CNN, Scary also didn’t seem overly concerned about discrepancies in some of his business and professional claims. His invoice to schools and his website — before we sat down for an interview — claimed his charity, KidsVisionHeart, is a nonprofit. (He changed his website after our interview.) The truth is KidsVisionHeart lost tax-exempt status nearly two years ago.
“It probably fell out because I didn’t report all of my taxes for the last seven years,” admits Scary.
CNN also learned his for-profit business, VisionHeart, was dissolved in the U.S. so his earnings from past gigs have been going to his bank account tax-free.
He says he’s trying to work out his taxes and is restructuring his business now, but his life on the road has made it difficult. And. he says, schools don’t care whether he’s for-profit or a charity.
Middle school Principal Dewey Schara of Austin, Minnesota, the community that booked Scary for two weeks last fall, is still a true believer.
“I think his credentials are stellar. And we looked into them because this is risky,” Schara says, when “you bring someone in that looks like Scary Guy, that talks like Scary Guy.”
Schara, who together with a parent-initiated bullying committee booked Scary to come to Austin-area schools, says a messenger with shock value is exactly what the community needed to wake up and take action against bullying.
“I just love his approach,” says Schara. “It’s not perfect. Some would say not beautiful. Maybe shocking to look at, but it gets everyone’s attention.”
The fact that Scary never finished college and has no formal training doesn’t bother Schara.
“In our world, the academic world, you have to have a degree, the law says you have to have a degree from an academic institution in order to do the job,” Schara said, “but that doesn’t make you a good teacher.”
Scary is also quick to defend his self-styled teaching methods and shared with CNN a curriculum he’s developing to go along with it.
“My teaching is researched-based in my personal experience and how I read people. No, it’s not out of a book,” Scary says, “but the truth is I don’t know where anyone would go to teach what I’ve been doing.”
And Scary says he has letters to prove he’s making a difference in kids’ lives.
“[The letters] just tell me what it’s like to make a difference, to make a change — to wake up to the idea that they don’t have to live with stress and negative behavior around them,” said Scary.
Juntunen recognizes some communities benefit from a Scary visit because his controversial approach can start a much-needed conversation about bullying; however, he says, what really matters is the daily interactions adults have with kids from the bus drivers to the school counselors. As he points out, people like The Scary Guy come and go.
“It is an ongoing process and the adults in this building, the adults in this community, the connections we make with kids — that’s what creates the culture, the anti-bullying culture that you’re trying to provide,” says Juntunen. “I think a lot of people are just asking for somebody else to do what we need to do ourselves.”