Busloads of teenagers streamed into a movie theater in Oakland's Jack London Square on Monday morning, past their superintendent of schools and the director of the film they were about to see.
In the next two weeks, 14,000 Oakland middle and high school students will watch "Bully" with their classmates. It's a wrenching documentary about the devastating and sometimes deadly consequences of bullying -- especially when school personnel don't take it seriously.
"I spent most of my childhood being bullied," Lee Hirsch, the director, told the young audience as he stood before the big screen. "I used to get hit so much that my arms were yellow from top to bottom. ... I couldn't make it stop."
Then he made a request: "As you watch this movie, think about the ways in which you can make a difference."
Last week, the Oakland school board updated its anti-bullying policy; the screening is part of a broader effort to address bullying in the schools. A new law that took effect July 1 has forced California school districts throughout the state to revise their handling of bullying, harassment and discrimination complaints.
"Seth's Law" is named after Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old from Tehachapi in Kern County, who was harassed by classmates and later took his life. The law establishes a timeline for the investigation and resolution of such incidents and requires school personnel who witness acts of bullying to intervene. One of the administrators featured in "Bully," Kim Lockwood, is shown repeatedly minimizing complaints of bullying from students and parents, even those which involved serious physical abuse.
"Our take on it is that it says administrators need quality training," said Wendi Caporicci, a former Oakland principal who is now with the American Federation of School Administrators. Caporicci said the national union supports such measures as Seth's Law.
Last month, the Alameda, Mt. Diablo and Martinez school boards also approved new policies related to student conduct, anti-bullying and sexual harassment to comply with the law. All Mt. Diablo administrators attended anti-bullying training at the beginning of the school year, said Felicia Stuckey-Smith, the district's student services director. The district is also looking at curriculum materials related to bullying.
"We're taking it very seriously," Stuckey-Smith said.
Still, Trustee Gary Eberhart noted that some schools don't always follow district policies consistently. He said the district should review expulsions and suspensions, focusing on how to deal with students who get 10 to 20 "second chances."
At Oak Grove Middle School in Concord last spring, one parent transferred her son to another campus after she said he was choked by another student. Following that incident, two teachers from the school complained to this newspaper that discipline and anti-bullying policies were not adequately enforced on the campus.
By showing "Bully" to nearly all of Oakland's middle and high school students, Superintendent Tony Smith and other civic leaders aim to drive home the importance of the chronic problem -- to teachers and administrators as well as to the students.
"We've got to stand up for our kids, and we've got to stand together," Smith said before the documentary began.
When the movie was over, students asked Hirsch when he had summoned the courage to stand up to bullying, and what had happened to the teen, Alex Libby, who was shown getting beaten up on the bus.
"What happened to the principal at Alex's school? Was she fired?" one student wanted to know.
"She did not get fired," Hirsch responded, which prompted gasps of disbelief in the audience.
In Santa Clara County, high school students have made bullying-prevention a priority. The Silicon Valley Interschool Council, which includes members from many of the county's 78 public high schools plus several private schools, is hoping that students themselves will take responsibility to stop bullying.
Participating students take a pledge not only to try to stop bullying, but also to seek help from adults if students can't handle a situation.
Fanae Clark, 14, who attends Oakland's McClymonds High School, said she plans to do the same. While she always knew that bullying hurt people, she said, she didn't empathize with its victims until she'd watched the documentary. "It makes you become a part of a person who's being bullied," she said.
Staff writers Theresa Harrington, Peter Hegarty and Sharon Noguchi contributed to this report. Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.
For more information on The Bully Project, an anti-bullying campaign that stems from the "Bully" documentary by Lee Hirsch, visit thebullyproject.com.
Seth's Law: Assembly Bill 9
This law was passed in 2011 in response to a tragedy: a gay middle school student from Tehachapi in Kern County who was bullied and who later committed suicide. It took effect on July 1, 2012, and requires school policies that prohibit discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying. It also requires that school personnel who witness the behavior take steps to intervene. It also establishes a timeline for schools to investigate and resolve such complaints.
Oakland unified defines bullying
"No student or group of students shall, through physical, written, verbal, or other means, harass, sexually harass, threaten, intimidate, cyberbully, cause bodily injury to, or commit hate violence against any other student or school personnel. As examples only, bullying may include, but is not limited to, the following: Physical (pinches, slaps, hits, damage to belongings); Verbal and Nonverbal (threats, insults, teasing, menacing); Relational (rumors, social exclusion); Cyber Bullying (defined more fully below); and/or Retaliation (intimidation, reprisal, or harassment directed against a person who witnesses, reports and/or aids in the investigation of bullying)."
Oakland Unified School District Board Policy 5131.2 (Bullying), passed on Sept. 12, 2012