When Haley Simon entered sixth grade last year, she started school with the confidence to wear hair extensions and to be herself — quirks and all. But in the world of middle school, she soon discovered, the consequences of seeming just a bit different proved to be severe.
The bullying began on school grounds, with students hurling insults at her and shoving her in the hallway. Then the Facebook posts started, and she couldn't even escape the torment at home.
"I can't tell you how many nights I would cry myself to sleep because of these terrible posts," the now seventh-grade resident of Yardley said, adding that a classmate once wrote that they would bring her rope so she could hang herself. "Kids were saying they would want me to die." Her family contacted school officials — who, they said, were slow to respond — and eventually they went to the local police. This year, for a variety of reasons, Haley said, the school year has been much better, starting with the fact that the administration moved the primary bullies to another class.
After living through this experience, one might think that Haley would have no desire to sit through the new film Bully, a raw, emotion-filled documentary that follows the lives of several families in multiple states, examining the impact of bullying.
But Haley and her mother, Wendy Simon, made it a point to see the movie. They were among the more than 200 people, mostly teens, who attended an April 15 screening of the film organized by BBYO, the Jewish youth group.
Haley said the movie showed her how others have gone through similar experiences. She plans to press for the movie to be shown at her school. "It kind of gives everyone a wake-up call."
Bully opened on March 30 in 55 markets nationwide, including Philadelphia. Two days later, BBYO held a private screening in a Center City movie theater, one of 15 such events planned nationally.
The youth organization's February convention in Atlanta included a preview of the film. BBYO members also were trained as leaders for the discussions that follow the 15 planned screenings.
For the Philadelphia program, BBYO bused in middle and high school students from a wide geographic area — one teen came from as far away as Clarks Summit, Pa., which is near Scranton — to take part.
The afternoon included a peer-led program before and after the film. The BBYO curriculum includes distributing cards that contain such Jewish values as pikuach nefesh, or saving a life; hochai'ach tochee'ach, you shall rebuke; halbanat panim, avoiding public humiliation; and ona'at d'varim, laws aimed at avoiding verbal humiliation.
The Philadelphia event was also co-sponsored by the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College and the Samost Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey.
The Bully Project, the organization that funded the film, aims to have 1 million teens see Bully and sign a pledge promising to take a stand against bullying — which nearly all the attendees at the Philly screening did.
Initially, it seemed that it might be more difficult for kids to see the documentary because of an R rating, but after the film was re-edited, it received a new rating of PG-13.
Filmmaker Lee Hirsch is delighted by BBYO's participation.
"BBYO has rallied around this film in a way that has absolutely been inspirational to me as a filmmaker and as a Jew," Hirsch said. "It's been an extraordinary thing to witness."
Cheltenham High School senior Tara Cherwony, secretary for BBYO's Philadelphia region, helped plan and lead the local film discussion.
"I cried the whole time when I watched it. I've been bullied, but I haven't had someone close to me be bullied so badly" that they considered taking their own life, she said. "I hope what people take away from this, if they do ever witness it, is to not be afraid to intervene."
After the screening, Wendy Simon said it is up to parents to make sure that school officials are doing all they can to protect a child.
"You really have to be an advocate for your own child," she said. "Schools on their own don't do enough. That's part of the problem — the schools don't take it seriously."
Now, Haley said, she often stands up for other kids who are bullied and is not afraid of the reprisals because she knows "the worst that can happen" and has learned to deal with it.
Still, she credits her parents and some close friends with helping her get through the worst of times. After saying that she didn't know what she would have done without the support of her parents, Haley turned towards her mother, squeezed her tightly, and said to her, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, "And I want to thank you."