Bullies find unintended consequences of their acts.
Alex grinned and laughed as he worked the room earlier this month at Edmond Memorial High School. He traded wisecracks with his buddy Chris, who described him as “a great, fun kid.” He visited with his friends Monica, Grayson, Dakota, Kye, Melinda and Sabrina. He greeted Mr. White, one of his favorite teachers, and talked about how he’s doing in health class.
It’s hard to believe that this exuberant ninth-grader used to be the trembling, lonely victim at the center of the recent documentary “Bully.”
The movie evoked cringes around the country by documenting Alex’s torment as a sixth-grader in northwest Iowa. Sioux City bullies called him “fishface.” They threatened to break his bones, sexually assault him and kill him. As the cameras rolled, they punched him, choked him and slammed his face into a bus seat. School administrators failed to grasp the severity of the situation.
Alex’s parents were shocked when the filmmakers showed them the video, and they were unsatisfied with school leaders’ response. The district moved Alex to another school, but the Libbys saw little conviction to fight the problem.
That’s why they moved their seven-member family to Oklahoma last November. The decision severed their Iowa roots, and it drained their finances, but it helped their son find a happier life.
He speaks up now.
Alex’s transfer to a new school and his experience as a spokesman for bullied children have transformed him. A few years ago, he rarely spoke more than a few words to anyone, including his parents. He now routinely stands in front of crowds and touts his cause. He’s been interviewed on national television, visited the White House and greeted countless fans. “It’s definitely made me a hugger,” he joked.
His new skills were on display one morning this month, when Alex, his mother and two of his four younger siblings attended an anti-bullying rally with two other families who were featured in the movie. Several hundred teens gathered in the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, and many recognized Alex. They surrounded him, took his picture and asked him to autograph their shirts.
A beauty pageant queen, clad in a sash, tiara and tight white dress, introduced herself to Alex shortly before the rally. His mother, Jackie Libby, stood several yards away, rolling her eyes as he chatted up the glamorous young woman. Jackie Libby noted that two other beauty pageant winners recently offered to take Alex to prom. “I’m like, ‘Come on, he’s not even going to prom — he’s a freshman,’ ” she recalled, chuckling.
The burst of attention on Alex probably will dim, and some of the adulation may be fleeting, but his mother is grateful for all of it. “You know what? He’s earned the right to have people be nice to him,” she said.
He craved friends.
Alex has always faced hurdles. He was born three months early, weighing just 1 pound and 11 ounces. A doctor told his parents he might not survive a day. During the four months he spent in the hospital, his nose was permanently flattened by tape that nurses used to hold an oxygen tube in place, his mother said. The tube helped keep him alive as a baby, but the distortion it left on his face marked him for ostracism and abuse in middle school.
Jackie also believes the premature birth contributed to his Asperger’s syndrome, which is a mild version of autism, and attention deficit disorder. Those conditions make it hard for people to relate socially to others and to concentrate in class.
Alex spent years in therapy for apparent depression, but he never told anyone that his dark moods were largely due to bullying. He says now that he didn’t want to upset his parents, who had bought their Sioux City house because it was in the same school district his mother had attended and enjoyed.
Some of the kids who bullied him, or who watched and laughed, had played with him in the past.
“Most of the kids on that bus, I knew from elementary school, and we were good friends then,” he said. “But then in middle school, everything changes, and it’s all about popularity and who dresses the best and who’s the most athletic and who has the best hair. I was not the kid with the best hair.”
Alex said he feared that reporting the bullies would make him even less popular.
“I craved friends,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends. That was all I wanted, some friendship, someone to come over, someone to lift me back up when I’m knocked down. I didn’t have that.”
His family wonders how bad Alex’s abuse might have become if fate hadn’t arrived three years ago in the form of a sympathetic stranger. Lee Hirsch, the film’s director, was starting work on the project when he noticed the sixth-grader sitting alone at middle-school orientation. Hirsch sat down, explained why he was at the school and asked if Alex had ever been bullied. Alex said he had, and then poured out his story. He and his parents agreed to participate in the film, which they thought might be shown on local public TV. They never figured it would become a national sensation.
“It’s amazing how things work out sometimes,” Jackie said.
Edmond not perfect
Many of Alex’s new Oklahoma friends watched the movie, and they saw familiar scenes. Edmond Memorial is viewed as a good school, but it has its share of trouble. Fellow freshman Monica Anderson said she cried as she watched what Alex had suffered. She said classmates increasingly are willing to speak out against bullying, but kids can still face ridicule if they fail to conform.
Monica bristles at such pressure. “God didn’t intend for all of us to be the same,” she said.
Carrie Higdon, an assistant principal who runs the school’s freshman wing, said staff members undergo annual training about bullying. They take the problem seriously, she said, but they know it continues to happen.
“I never want it to come across that at Edmond Memorial High School we are perfect and that’s why Alex Libby had a great experience here,” she said. “We need to never turn a blind eye to it and say, ‘It doesn’t happen at my school.’ ”
Higdon noted that bullying is more than one kid criticizing or shoving another. Bullying is the repeated targeting of a child or group of children for such treatment. She stressed that students and parents need to report bullying, because teachers often are unaware. In most cases, she said, bullies change their ways after they are brought before administrators, told what they’re doing is wrong and warned that they will face consequences for it.
Adults asked to help
Jackie Libby, 35, said she encountered several excellent staff members in the Sioux City schools, but none of them was in a position to force changes. Administrators there could ease the problems if they really wanted to, she said. “There has to be enough people willing to stand up and say, ‘We are no longer willing to tolerate this.’”
Jackie Libby recalled being on a short leash in school. “My mom convinced me that everyone I saw, from the time I left my home until the time I returned to it, had my mother’s phone number — and if I acted out of line, she was going to get a call, and that was going to be the end of me.”
Teachers these days seem more hesitant to call parents to report misbehavior, she said. That’s probably partly because they fear being accused of overreacting, and partly because they’re busy pushing kids to perform well on academic tests.
“We’ve forgotten that it’s also our job with children to teach them how to be good people,” she said.
Jackie Libby said she and her husband, Philip, now seek details about their kids’ lives. “There was a time when if I asked, ‘How was your day?,’ you could say, ‘Fine.’ And I could ask, ‘What happened today?’ And you could say, ‘Nothing.’ Those are no longer acceptable answers around our dinner table.”
Film ‘a hell of a gift. ‘
Alex has taken steps to fit in. He fixes his hair carefully and wears clothes and glasses he thinks are stylish. He doesn’t let his mouth hang open like it used to, and has tried to curb an odd laugh.
Alex knows that his family’s finances have slumped since the family moved from Iowa. His parents chose Edmond for the quality of its schools, but the Oklahoma City suburb is relatively expensive. The Libbys are renting a smaller house than they owned in Sioux City, which means that Alex must share a bedroom with his two little brothers, Ethan, 6, and Logan, 5. Both parents have been unemployed. Philip Libby recently found a carpentry position, but Jackie Libby lost her warehouse job after taking numerous days off to travel with Alex to anti-bullying appearances.
Supporters tell her she and her family don’t have to attend so many rallies; they don’t have to grant so many interviews; they don’t have to counsel so many strangers.
Jackie Libby supposes that’s true, but then she thinks about what might have happened to Alex if the moviemakers hadn’t spotlighted his plight.
“We got a hell of a gift,” she said.
She noted that a national group has counted nearly 2,000 suicides of bullied children.
“That’s 2,000 families that have lost their children, and they’re never going to get them back,” she said. “We got that gift, and we’ll never be able to repay it.”
FOR VICTIMS: Those who feel overwhelmed by bullying can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, or a more general 121help.me youth counseling hot line, 855-201-2121.
FOR PARENTS: Parents worried about children bullied in school should contact their local principal. The Iowa Department of Education (educateiowa.gov) and stopbullying.gov offer additional resources.
safeyouth.gov: STRYVE (Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere), an anti-bullying effort led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
stopbullying.gov: Resources gathered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
thebullyproject.com: Site of the “Bully” documentary