Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History. Dir. Bill Brummel and Geoffrey Sharp. Southern Poverty Law Center and Bill Brummel Productions, 2010. 48 min.
In both junior high and high school, Wisconsin student Jamie Nabozny was maliciously and habitually harassed and assaulted by many of his fellow students because of his sexuality. His fellow students stood idly by, and his schools’ administrators willfully ignored his plight, opting instead to blame Jamie for his situation. His family’s helplessness in achieving any meaningful recourse caused Nabozny to attempt suicide, run away from home multiple times, and ultimately file and win an historic, high-profile lawsuit against the school district for failing him so completely. Nabozny’s story is the subject of the uneven but poignant and powerful documentary entitled Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History.
Impeccably narrated by Jane Lynch, Bullied uses three techniques to tell Nabozny’s story, with mixed results. The film is grounded by scenes of Nabozny lecturing to youth about bullying. He’s a compelling speaker, and we’re left somewhat in awe of his courage and determination. This is a man who is willing to relive the horrific experiences of his life in order to prevent the same horrors from befalling today’s students. The film also relies on interviews with Nabozny as well as his family members, lawyers, counselors and teachers who have helped him along the way. These are among the most wrenching and affecting moments in the documentary and the film would have been astounding had we heard the story mostly in this format.
Unfortunately, many of the events that Nabozny experienced are presented through disruptive and unnecessary dramatic reenactments. These regrettable scenes, especially those in the first half of the film, are overblown distractions in comparison to the subtle, mounting power of the rest of the documentary. One senses that these scenes were included to add a sense of urgency, but the stakes are already so high for Nabozny that these dramatizations are usually extraneous.
The parts of the film that do work, however, are very moving and thought-provoking. The viewer gets a crushing, heartfelt account of the monumental damage that bullying does to victims. More subtly, there are valuable lessons about the consequences of inaction, victim-blaming, and willful ignorance. For the school district that Nabozny sued, the punishment was a hefty cash settlement but the film touches upon the ethical implications of being a bystander who doesn’t intervene when bullying transpires. Young viewers will take many important lessons about empathy and humanity from this documentary. Hopefully it will spur them to take positive action to combat the plague of bullying in American schools.
I recommend Bullied for both school and public libraries as well as all viewers in junior high and high school. The DVD can be ordered for free from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” project at www.tolerance.org. It is accompanied by an extraordinarily useful viewer’s guide that teachers and librarians can use to engage their students on the film’s themes.
Psychology Liaison Librarian, James Madison University