Mattituck-Cutchogue School District students got emotional Tuesday morning discussing five bullied teens they’d only just met on the big screen.
The group of junior-senior high school students visited Mattituck Cinemas to watch the 2011 documentary “Bully,” which depicts how bullying has affected children and their families.
According to the documentary’s website thebullyproject.com, filming took place during the 2009-10 school year in different parts of the country and captured a growing movement among communities to change how schools handle bullying.
One story concerns 12-year-old Alex Libby. Cameras followed him around his hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, and showed how he was tormented, cursed at, physically abused and called “fish face” numerous times on the bus ride to school.
“I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore,” Alex told his mother when she learned about what was happening to him.
In the film, school officials are shown to be dismissive about the bullying after Alex’s parents complained. A few years later, he and his family moved out of state and Alex has been giving motivational anti-bullying talks.
Mattituck students Sarah Pfennig, 16, and Tucker Johansson, 14, said they believe the movie, directed by Lee Hirsch, will make a positive change among students.
Sarah described the school’s actions in Alex’s case as “very disheartening” and said she was saddened to see how he struggled to fit in.
Tucker said he believed seeing the film in a movie theater expressed the anti-bullying message stronger than if students had watched it in the school auditorium.
“It showed it’s not OK to bully and what happens to people when you do it,” he said of the movie. “My favorite part was when they all got together at the end to help stop bullying.”
That scene in the movie showed a mournful anti-bullying community gathering where balloons were tied to several empty seats, each representing the name of a bullied student who had committed suicide.
Sarah said she was one of the many students who cried when the balloons were released after each name was read.
“It makes you really appreciate how things are here,” Sarah said of Mattituck schools. She said she believes principal Shawn Petretti and assistant principal David Smith take bullying seriously and getting “The Bully Project” into Mattituck is another way of showing how administrators want to help students combat bullying.
The school has recently held other programs to teach students about compassion.
In September, American Paralympian Rohan Murphy visited students and gave a motivational talk about perseverance. Last year, John Halligan of Vermont visited the school to talk about how bullying drove his son, Ryan, to suicide and how he hoped his story will prevent future tragedies.
Mr. Petretti described Mattituck’s latest anti-bullying program as another tool to address the issue and said students will be writing reflective essays about the movie in their English classes.
Seniors also met with younger students last Friday to discuss the school’s culture and ways to deter bullying.
Since Mr. Petretti said he doesn’t want the movie experience to be a “one-and-done program,” he’s working with his staff and students to create a follow-up plan.
“I need your help,” he told students at the conclusion of the movie. “You’re on the bus, in the locker rooms and in the halls.
“Don’t just let this go.”
Cassidy Bertolias and Jillian Pedone, both 13, said they haven’t seen the types of physical bullying depicted in the movie at their school but have noticed that students will sometimes “talk behind each other’s backs” and agreed students will now be more aware of how negative comments hurt people’s feelings.
“[The movie’s] going to do something for our school,” Cassidy said.