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Movie ratings rated PG for "Poor Guide"

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment March 9, 2012 03:00 AM

The recent controversy over the R rating preliminarily given to a forthcoming documentary about teenage bullying clearly exposes a real limitation to the existing movie rating system. The voluntary motion picture code of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a brainchild of the late Jack Valenti, is designed to shield children from content inappropriate for their age and maturity level.

In the case of Bully, the mature rating was earned because of the frequent profanity uttered by the teens in the film. Unless either side (the MPAA or the film’s producer) relents, the rating would restrict access to Bully’s anti-violence message for the very group who would most benefit from seeing it—teenagers.

Perhaps the MMPA expects that teens and their parents will attend the film together (permitted under the R restriction). But for many adolescents, there are few things more embarrassing than being seen in the theater sitting next to their parents. Alternatively, teenagers could always sidestep the MMPA morality marshals by waiting until the film is released on DVD or on cable.

Hopefully, the ratings mess surrounding Bully will be resolved in time for the film’s release scheduled for the end of this month. Even so, there is a much larger problem associated with film ratings, as well as similar rating systems for TV and video games. Not only do rating systems fail to achieve the desired outcome, they often have the reverse effect. Ratings typically do more to attract young audiences to mature content than to deter them.


Slogans not enough to combat bullying

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 25, 2012 05:00 AM

If you haven't been paying attention to the academic calendar, you may not be aware that today is "No Name Calling Day" in elementary and secondary schools statewide. And, as a way for students to pledge repudiation of the insidious practice of bullying, they are being asked to wear black to indicate their willingness to "Black Out Bullying."

When declaring January 25th as a day to raise awareness, Governor Deval Patrick noted:

?In my role as Governor and as a father of two daughters, I firmly believe that every child should come to school knowing that they are safe and free from bullying. No Name Calling Day will remind us of the type of vigilance we should exhibit every day to ensure our students are free from the dangers and distractions of bullying.?

Promises are cheap and easy, as is wearing some piece of black attire. The question is whether this will have any real effect on bullying, short-term or long-term, when, literally, push comes to shove. Or, is it little more than cosmetic?


Look who is bullying now

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment March 10, 2011 11:15 AM

It has been over ten months since Gov. Deval Patrick signed the state’s new anti-bullying law, a measure that passed unanimously in both legislative chambers. Apparently, there is growing frustration on Beacon Hill , especially from Representative Marty Walz who crafted the legislation, over the dozens of schools and school districts that are late with their assignments.

As further “encouragement,” the identities of the non-compliant schools and school districts have been publicized. Although arguably it might be useful for parents whose children are enrolled in these schools to be alerted, the move to shame school administrators into compliance seems both premature and mean-spirited.


Florida dad wins Bernie Goetz award!

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment September 23, 2010 09:30 AM

The votes are in; they've been counted and certified. This year’s winner of the Bernard H. Goetz award -- given to the man or woman who takes matters into their own hands in the face of injustice and is widely praised as a result -- goes to 42-year-old James Jones of Lake Mary, Florida.

Just like the unforgettable Bernie Goetz, who back in 1984 shot a group of aggressive, yet unarmed hoodlums on a New York subway train and became an instant folk hero even after his arrest for attempted murder, Jones was fed up and refused to accept the role of victim. Jones was furious that several youngsters were making his daughter’s life a living hell. Apparently, the 11-year-old girl, who has cerebral palsy, was repeatedly teased, tormented and harassed on the school bus. According to allegations, some kids had put condoms on her head, smacked her and twisted her ear.

Justifiably irate and seeking to protect his child, Jones barged onto the school bus to confront the bullies. Screaming, swearing and seemingly out of control, the man threatened to kill the bullies (as well as the bus driver) if the mistreatment did not immediately cease and desist.“This is my daughter," ranted Jones, "and I will kill the (expletive) who fought her.”

As with Goetz, Jones clearly went way too far in standing up for the victim, and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and disturbing a school function. His emotional response is understandable, yet his actions were wholly inappropriate. We may sympathize with his predicament, empathize with his frustration, and support his desire to be a protective parent. We must condemn his actions, nonetheless. Jones could have and should have threatened the ruffians with a call to the police, to the principal or to their parents. But by threatening violence, he took over the role of bully in confronting younger and weaker targets.


Why anti-bullying programs fail

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment August 31, 2010 11:15 AM

With the start of the school year fast approaching, millions upon millions of students are soaking up the last few days of summer. For some, however, a return to school means having to face once again harassment in the hallway and bullying on the bus.

Although the Internet may have broadened the scope, harassing behavior -- from teasing to intimidation, from shoving to fighting -- has been a problem for decades, if not centuries, likely for as long as there have been schools. Previously dismissed as normal and relatively harmless child’s play -- “boys being boys,” “girls being catty” -- in recent years bullying has taken on an entirely different meaning. Not only do victims tend to experience higher rates of illness and depression, but, some have resorted to suicide or murder as a last resort relief from constant harassment.

The suicide last January by 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school student in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is but one of many episodes of senseless tragedy apparently precipitated by bullying and harassment. Eric Mohat of Mentor, Ohio, was harassed so mercilessly that when a one of his tormentors said out loud in class, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself, no one will miss you,” he did just that. And Luke Woodham who killed two classmates and wounded seven others in Pearl, Mississippi, wrote in what was meant as a suicide note, “I am not insane! I am angry. I kill because people like me are mistreated every day. I do this to show society—push us and we will push back. I have suffered all my life. No one ever truly loved me."

For too many years, schools often responded to reports of bullying by placing the blame on the shoulders of victims, implicitly assuming that they were somehow responsible for their own victimization, if only because they failed to stand up for themselves. In cases where a student had to be transferred from one class or homeroom to another to prevent further harassment, it was usually the victim and not the bully who was displaced.

In the past couple of decades, however, school administrators have come to take -- or have been compelled by law to take -- a more progressive and enlightened view of the causes of and solutions to bullying. Rather than focusing just on the victims and offenders, schools have had far greater success by addressing the broader school climate.

Despite the range of promising tools for bullying suppression, there are significant hurdles to their successful application in school settings. Most of all, the school climate must be amenable to changing norms surrounding intimidation and aggression. Intolerance for acts of bullying must be the perspective widely embraced and shared by both faculty and students, not something merely imposed upon students by administrative decree.


Gleeful bullying

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 10, 2010 08:34 AM

I watched in dismay as a high school sophomore had his head dunked in the boy's room toilet by two older students. I cringed as I saw some over-sized jock give a diminutive classmate a major wedgie. Witnessing a geeky student being pelted with a cherry Slurpee frankly brought back painful memories of my own victimization on school days decades ago.

And what did I do in response to viewing all these cruel acts of harassment and bullying? Absolutely nothing. I was too amused and excited...not by the non-random acts of unkindness, but by the singing and dancing that would soon follow. And when it was all over, I anxiously awaited another entertaining episode of Glee.


Some mercy for the South Hadley bullies

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 4, 2010 12:01 PM

In her story last week, Maria Cramer quoted legal experts on some of the challenges facing the prosecution in pursuing charges against the South Hadley 9. Clearly, District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel is applying and stretching the law to fit bad behavior far afield from the criminal conduct for which it was codified.

Despite some of the hurdles in making the charges stick, the prosecutor will likely benefit by focusing as much as possible on the victim, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. The smart strategy will be to remind the jury of the sweet and innocent face that we’ve all seen over and over in her widely publicized portrait.


(AP Photo)
Phoebe Prince: a sweet and innocent face for a jury

But--as my editor asked me last week--what about the challenges confronted by defense counsel in vigorously representing their clients? In defending the students who are alleged to have bullied and harassed Prince so horribly that she committed suicide (“bullied to death,” as it has been called), their lawyers may need to paint the victim as especially weak and fragile. They may have to advance a theory that the Irish-Catholic immigrant was herself struggling emotionally after her sexual relationship with an older boy, and that those feelings of guilt (perhaps reinforced by classmates) precipitated the suicide. It would be difficult not to sound like blaming the victim, a major turn-off for jurors.

Perhaps a better defense strategy--if only because it is true--would be to blame the group, rather than the victim. In part, the culprit was the social alliance of the accused, not just the defendants themselves.


Who's to blame for cyberbullying?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 2, 2010 10:28 AM

Recent events from eastern to western Massachusetts have focused our attention and concern on the widespread problem of cyberbullying among children and adolescents. Sad but true, it had to take a tragedy like Phoebe Prince's suicide to push this challenging problem to the top of our agenda.

In certain respects, cyberbullying is just an old theme in a new arena. What at one time may have been scribbled on the wall of a bathroom stall, only seen by relatively few people (and potentially not the victim), can now be broadcast widely through online blogs, chat rooms, and social networks. Compounding the problem is that the technical skills of teenagers—not to mention the enormous hours spent online—far exceed the limited skills of parents and other guardians to use the technology or comprehend the cryptic language of cyberspeak (e.g., ‘‘ih8u’’), thereby interfering with their ability to detect or monitor this behavior.

But it would be unfair and misguided just to blame the Internet and various social networking sites for intensifying the hurtfulness of bullying, cattiness, name-calling and slander. Rather, we adults are in large part responsible for showing kids how to use and misuse the medium, especially under the shroud of anonymity. It is also the fact that basic civility has gone the way of the Edsel.


Combatting bullying requires changes in attitude

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment March 22, 2010 11:26 AM

Rarely do we see such unanimity as in Thursday's 148-0 vote in the Massachusetts House for an anti-bullying bill. It is too bad, of course, that it seemed to have taken two tragic suicides by victims of bulling to have pushed this long-languishing piece of legislation forward.

The pending legislation—which undoubtedly will soon reach the Governor’s desk for his approval—does contain some important features, such as training and reporting requirements. However, we should not see this as a panacea that will swiftly and surely eradicate a problem that has existed for generations of school children—perhaps as long as there have been schoolyards and students.


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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