We met Alex before the school year started, right after 7th grade orientation, sitting outside the school on a bench, waiting to be picked up. While the other kids gathered in groups, loudly chattering about what they did over the summer and which teachers they had for which period, Alex was distinctly alone, shoulders slumped around him, looking both determined to fly under the radar and acutely in need of a friend. When we approached him, we soon learned that he had been bullied since elementary school.
We met other families in a variety of ways. Kelby’s mother, Londa, had written in to Ellen DeGeneres’ website after Ellen did a show with Sirdeaner Walker, who lost her son Carl to suicide after he was relentlessly bullied. We were shocked by Londa’s description of the bullying Kelby had endured, after she came out to her small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma, forced from her sports teams because her teammates harassed her on the field and in the locker room, alienated at school where both peers and teachers hurled homophobic slurs at her, unsafe on the streets of her community where she was run down by a carful of her classmates in a minivan. With the help of Ellen’s producers, we were able to reach out to Kelby, whose incredible courage we soon were in awe of.
Ja’Meya’s story came to us through hearing about the news of the young man who bravely wrestled the gun away from her on her school bus, with an awareness that the other side to the story was not being heard. When Lee met her, Ja’Meya was incarcerated in a Mississippi juvenile detention facility, awaiting a ruling on multiple felony charges including kidnapping and attempted aggravated assault. As opposed to the “kids gone wild” tone of much of the news media about her, Ja’Meya was a soft-spoken 14-year-old, a basketball player, an honor student and a girl who was relentlessly picked on over the course of her hour-long bus ride to and from school—who eventually broke.
We met David and Tina Long a few weeks after their son Tyler had taken his own life at 17 after being terribly bullied—even after his suicide—when his bullies wore nooses to school the Monday following the tragedy. We learned that the Longs were holding a Town Hall Meeting, to discuss bullying in their community of Chatsworth, Georgia, and were stunned by their commitment to engage kids, parents, community leaders, and hopefully, educators, on how to make a difference in Murray County’s schools. Unfortunately, the school district declined to participate in the Town Hall meeting, but the voices of both these parents, and others in the community were astonishing, and we continued to follow the Longs’ struggle to ensure no other child would have to endure the torment that Tyler suffered.
And we met Kirk and Laura Smalley in the spring of 2010, at the tail end of that long school year, just days after their son Ty, 11, had passed away. In the midst of mourning such a profound loss, we were struck by Kirk and Laura’s determination to transform this tragedy into change. Within just a few months, they had launched Stand for the Silent, which today has reached tens of thousands of students, inspiring young people to stand up for those who are being bullied, and for those who are bullied, to cherish their own self-worth.
It was through the bravery of these five kids and families that we were able to depict the experience of bullying in such a way as to make it impossible to gloss over, to turn the other way, to accept as a “normal” rite of passage, or “just kids being kids.” As we have discovered from the incredible outpouring of support in the past weeks in regard to the MPAA rating, this film reflects the experiences of not only these five families, but of the 13 million kids and families who are bullied in this country every single year.