Film Aimed At Getting Bystanders To 'Speak Up'

As many as a quarter of U.S. students report being a victim of bullying. This Sunday, the Cartoon Network will air Speak Up, a new documentary that shares the stories of victims. Host Michel Martin speaks with bullying expert Duane Thomas and Aaron Cheese, a student featured in the film.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we want to turn to an issue that causes pain for many young people and their families. We're talking about bullying.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 15 to 25 percent of U.S. students report being a victim of bullying at some point and now a growing number of kids are talking back to their bullies and telling the adults in their lives to listen.

This Sunday, the Cartoon Network will air "Speak Up." That's a documentary featuring kids from across the country sharing their own stories about surviving bullies.

Atlanta student Aaron Cheese is one of those young people. Here's a short clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPEAK UP")

AARON CHEESE: I kind of tried to lay low, do as few things in school as possible. Just tried to get through the day without being made fun of and then, somehow, they would still find me and then bully me.

MARTIN: That's Aaron Cheese. He's a 15 year old from Atlanta, Georgia. He's one of the people interviewed for "Speak Up," a new documentary about bullying, and he's with us now in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thank you for coming.

CHEESE: Hello. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Professor Duane Thomas. He is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He consulted on the film, "Speak Up." He's a clinical psychologist and he's worked a lot on preventing violence.

Welcome to you, professor. Thank you for coming, also.

DUANE THOMAS: Hello. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Aaron, you're very candid in the film about some of the things that you've experienced and I hate to take you through that again, but I am going to ask you just to talk a little bit about some of the ways that you experienced bullying.

CHEESE: Well, there were a few features about myself that others, I guess, found amusing and they would pick on me about it. For instance, I had glasses and braces at an early age. My last name is, of course, Cheese and my lips are somewhat large, so they chose those points to make fun of me.

MARTIN: I actually think you're quite handsome.

CHEESE: Oh, well...

MARTIN: In fact, I think that you could be a dead ringer for a young Barack Obama. Just - that's my take on it. So what is it that you think kind of got people so excited? Do you have any idea what it is or it just seemed to come out of the blue? Did it start at any particular point or...

CHEESE: It happened close to second, third grade. People started to realize that you were different from others, and so when they saw these differences and they had similarities with each other, but not with me, they would single me out and they would say, oh, well, he's different. He's the odd one out, so...

MARTIN: Pick on him.

CHEESE: Yes.

MARTIN: Did you ever tell any of the grown-ups? Did you ever talk to the teachers about it or your parents?

CHEESE: No. Because, of course, there is the fear of being called a snitch or just being picked on more because you're a cry baby and went and told somebody about someone making fun of you and I didn't want to increase it by telling someone. But, actually, by not telling someone, I was increasing it, so...

MARTIN: Professor Thomas, is that typical of what you're hearing? What I'm hearing - a couple of things - that this started really young. You can see where a junior high school kid or a high school kid might think, OK, I can handle this. But for a child that young, eight or nine years old, to think, oh, no. This is my problem. Is that typical?

THOMAS: Yeah. It's very typical. Actually, listening to Aaron's story, it's pretty common with what we're hearing from a lot of kids. And perhaps most salient about what he just said, bullies tend to target individuals whom they feel can not defend themselves, so these are typically individuals they feel are weaker or somewhere outside of the norm.

And this can cover a number of different cultural dimensions, whether it's race, ethnicity, physical stature, and the list goes on and on.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that I like about the documentary, it asks the question, why? You know, Aaron, you know, did you ever ask these kids, like, why are you doing this? And what did they say?

CHEESE: No. I didn't ask them, but I did have a few theories in my head. I mean, I would go through my head of things that I wanted to say to them, but I was afraid to say because, of course - and I was tiny. But I think it was really just to push themselves up because, you know, I know you've heard this scenario. I don't have to run faster than the bear. I just have to outrun the person I'm running with.

Well, that's what they're doing. I don't have to be cool. I just have to be cooler than this guy, so if I'm cooler than this guy, well, hey, I've got something.

MARTIN: Professor Thomas, what's your take on this? Why does this go on and why are kids afraid to tell?

THOMAS: Right. Well, what Aaron is definitely touching on - some common themes in bullying. One, he alludes to the fact that, sometimes, there's a power imbalance. Maybe it's a real or perceived imbalance in power between the bully and the person that's being bullied, and so oftentimes individuals will target other individuals where they feel as if they can wield their power and there won't be any consequences resulting from that.

So his case is very striking and very similar to what we're hearing.

MARTIN: And why aren't kids telling?

THOMAS: Well, kids aren't telling for a number of different reasons. Sometimes, kids can be incredibly apathetic. Maybe kids are feeling as if we see these issues that are happening, but maybe it has nothing to do with me. And we're talking specifically about the bystander or individuals who actually witness other people getting bullied.

And this is the core of what the Speak Up campaign is all about, really trying to galvanize, really trying to encourage and empower individuals to really speak up and solicit the support of adults when they're seeing friends or other people in their social setting getting bullied.

So, one, a sense of apathy, not feeling as if it's my problem. There's a sense of cynicism, as well. If I speak up, you know, nothing is really going to change. No one is going to do anything about it.

There's also the real concern about, you know, one, in turn, having the bully subject some type of negative attention towards them or them, in essence, becoming the victim of bullying.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about "Speak Up." That's a new documentary airing this weekend on the Cartoon Network. It's about bullying. Our guests are student Aaron Cheese. He's one of the students featured in "Speak Up." And Professor Duane Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania. He's a consultant for the documentary. He's also a clinical psychologist.

And, you know - Aaron, do you feel things are getting better now that you have spoken up?

CHEESE: I think they have.

MARTIN: How have you kind of measured that in your own life?

CHEESE: Well..

MARTIN: Well, you're in a documentary, so you're cool now.

CHEESE: Oh, well, yes. That's a big part of it, but I feel like, really, once we grew up and spread out more, you would see the diversity in everyone and so you could see: I'm like her, but no one else is like me. Everyone is individual.

So, instead of in elementary school, when everyone kind of seemed to run together and there was usually one or two outliers, now you're going to middle school and high school where there's a larger peer base and there's more people that are going to be different.

And I think the bullies finally understood that not everyone's going to be like me. I have to grow up and accept it.

MARTIN: You know, Professor Thomas, before we let you go, it seems as though there is a lot more attention around this issue now for a number of reasons. I mean, there have been some terrible stories involving kids, you know, people who've taken their own lives because they just couldn't take it anymore. There have been other instances where kids have actually killed other kids because they couldn't take it any more.

On the other hand, it's still perceived as kind of a rite of passage for kids. It's like, well, you know what? This is just something you have to go through. It's just kind of what happens on the way to adulthood and I'm just wondering if you feel like it's possible to achieve, like, a real cultural shift where people will get that it's not OK.

THOMAS: Yeah. I think we're certainly starting to - moving toward somewhat of a paradigm shift in terms of how we're thinking about this incidence and it is unfortunate that it takes highly publicized tragic events to kind of galvanize people around an issue. But it's certainly having an effect and I think that kids are standing up and they're voicing their need for some assistance around this issue.

And, in fact, it's very important to point out that the Stop Bullying: Speak Up campaign came about as a direct result of youth advisors actually voicing and asking for help from the Cartoon Network to get around this issue. So this is a direct response to that type of demand.

MARTIN: Duane Thomas is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He's a clinical psychologist. He was a consultant on the film "Speak Up." It's set to air this Sunday on the Cartoon Network. He was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Aaron Cheese. He's a high school sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia, featured in that Cartoon Network documentary, "Speak Up."

I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And, Aaron, good luck to you.

CHEESE: Thank you.

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