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Bullies and Friends: Interview With Filmmaker and Bullying Prevention Advocate Cassidy McMillan

Cassidy McMillan
Have you ever known someone was hurt, given them tools or a new perspective to turn things around, and had them come to you with hope and relief in their eyes and say, “Now I know what to do”?
 
These powerful words are exactly what Cassidy McMillan wants to hear, and what she has heard when she's screened her documentary film, Bullies and Friends, at focus group previews for schools and teens, prior to the film's release.
 
McMillan is an award-winning director, writer, and producer, whose bullying prevention and filmmaking work has been recognized by a variety of organizations and events, including the United Nations Association, which awarded Cassidy the Impact Filmmaking Award. Cassidy is also a speaker/expert and media contributor on bullying, an actress with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), and president of McMillan FilmWorks, an independent film company that shines a light on social issues. 
 
Bullies and Friends documents the true story of Dawn-Marie Wesley, a teenager from British Columbia, Canada who committed suicide after being threatened and harassed by three girls at her school. The film also documents other bullying incidents and teen suicides attributed to bullying, and touches on bullying-related school violence. The film's aim is to prevent other teens from taking their lives, and to present solutions for targets, bystanders, and perpetrators of bullying, as well as parents, educators, and communities.
 
In honor of Bullying Awareness Week taking place November 16–22, 2014, I interviewed Cassidy about her film, and she shared her insight into how we can prevent the devastating effects of bullying and help kids find hope and solutions. “There are things we can implement right now for solutions,” she said. “and kids need to know help is available.”
 
What made you decide to produce and direct a documentary about bullying?
I heard of this story on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, when Ms. Winfrey was talking with Dawn-Marie's mom. I learned that in Dawn-Marie's suicide note, she named the three girls at her school who had been bullying and threatening to kill her. Dawn-Marie's death resulted in a precedent-setting court case, where for the first time in North America, teens stood trial for bullying. 
 
When I watched the show, I was horrified that a 14-year-old girl would commit suicide due to the malice of others. I felt compelled to take action to tell the story more in depth, in order to hopefully help prevent another boy or girl from taking their life due to bullying. 
 
What are viewers learning from this film as you screen it in schools?
As I've traveled throughout the US showing preview versions of the film at focus group screenings at some of the schools requesting the film prior to release, students have come up to me after the film and told me, “I'm being bullied and I was thinking of committing suicide because of it, but after seeing the film, seeing what Dawn's family went through, what her best friend went through, and the fact that I wouldn't be here, I'm now going to report it and get help instead.” 
 
That to me has made all the difference and has made the long journey in making this film more than worth it. I wanted to prevent another suicide due to bullying. And bullying can be prevented. What I want kids to take away from the film and its message is—I want them to know help is out there, that people care, and that school does not last forever. School should be a way to get an education, yet many kids look at it as “School is a place where I go and get harassed or beaten up.” 
 
That needs to change. When I speak at schools, I let them know there's a world outside of school where they can utilize their education, that they're not alone, and that someone acknowledges that bullying is a serious issue. I let them know through communication and reporting bullying, that it can help. Also in the film, through the words of teens involved in what happened with Dawn, kids learn that communication is effective, and that even if it's your friend who’s bullying others, you can tell them to stop and that reporting bullying is very important.
 
I also wanted to ensure that the film presents solutions—not just “This is a sad story,” but that the takeaway is that one can overcome and/or prevent bullying and that there are prevention solutions for kids. The film also provides solutions to teachers, parents, school administrators, and communities in knowing how to recognize bullying, deal with bullying, and what they can implement right now to prevent it.
 
What have you learned through the process of making Bullies and Friends?
One person working on a cause can create a community of others joining in to help, and in turn, that one person can make a difference. As I was filming the documentary, I started getting emails from across the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, Africa, France, and it made me realize what a global society we truly are. As of now, schools from over 14 countries are requesting the documentary Bullies and Friends, and I'm humbled by the enormous chord it's struck around the globe, and feel a responsibility to help these schools, kids, and parents. 
 
I'm finding there's a powerful response to the multi-layered issue of bullying. The New York City Department of Education requested I speak at one of their high schools to talk with students about bullying prevention, and show a preview version of the film, as sadly, there had been a student at that school who committed suicide. Working with the students and teachers there was deeply affecting to me as they truly cared about the issue of bullying and were working to prevent it. Also, a local business in Portland, ME sponsored a trip for me to come there to help promote anti-bullying legislation, as a bullying prevention bill had been voted down a year prior. I was so happy when they called me the week after I spoke at the bullying prevention event, along with others including the city's mayor and the governor's press secretary, to let me know the bill passed in the state legislature. 
 
Events like that, where communities take action, can make a profound difference. I was also deeply honored that the mayor listed me in the city's official proclamation declaring it Bullying Awareness Day and appreciated how he and the city's residents worked to help prevent bullying. 
 
And a couple of months ago, I was asked to speak about my film, bullying, and youth suicides caused by bullying, at a local city council meeting here in southern California by the city's mayor pro tem, to help get a city committee approved to address bullying. Others also spoke and the city council voted unanimously to approve it. Everyone came away with the knowledge that all of us as a society are stakeholders in the issue of bullying. I feel it's important to work on bullying prevention initiatives. In regard to specific legislation on bullying, it can help schools and law enforcement properly address bullying when it becomes criminal harassment, threats, assault, etc. 
 
Can you tell us about the legal aspects of the case at the center of Bullies and Friends?
One of the extraordinary things we found is that the town's police, who originally investigated the incident, said no crime had been committed, and brought no charges against the three girls who Dawn named in her suicide note, despite the fact that teen witnesses attested to the threats and harassment. 
 
One of the three girls named in the suicide note was the daughter of a police officer in the town. While police officials denied this had anything to do with the decision to not bring charges, ultimately, it took a regional prosecutor to investigate the threats, harassment, and bullying, and to interview witnesses. And it was the prosecutor who brought charges against the three girls based on the evidence she found.
 
The charges brought against the three girls were for criminal harassment and making threats with the intent to instill fear or bodily harm. These charges convey what many incidents of bullying actually are. 
 
For the documentary, we worked to ensure that all aspects of the case were shown. With the trials, two girls were found guilty. An additional unique aspect of the case is how restorative justice factored in. Dawn's mom requested to talk face-to-face with one of the girls found guilty—the daughter of the police officer—as that teen was First Nations. A restorative justice First Nations Tribal Sentencing Circle was held, with the judge and all involved present. A court-ordered tribal sentencing circle hadn't been done in over 25 years, and was quite remarkable.
 
Regarding the sentencing requirements handed down, it was shown there wasn't enough support within the guidelines of the juvenile justice system for follow-up to make sure the sentencing aspects were carried out, which upset some people in the community. 
 
In the broader context of juvenile laws on bullying in the US and Canada, statutes/laws in the juvenile court system have not caught up with the verbal, written, and physical bullying committed by kids in schools and on the Internet. But as a global community, if we ask our government representatives to make sure sufficient legislation and laws are created, this will help in addressing youth bullying within the legal system.
 
What are some examples of things from your speaking engagements that you find really resonate with teens and educators?
I've found it resonates with kids when they know they're not alone in dealing with bullying. I'll ask for both teachers and students to raise their hand if they've ever been bullied. When kids see their teachers' hands go up, as well as every student acknowledging they've been bullied, it empowers them. It helps them feel less isolated, and lets them know their teacher will understand what they're potentially dealing with. 
 
It also helps students when I talk about the fact that the child who commits bullying is being aggressive due to that child being insecure, or jealous of the target they're bullying, or they could be being abused also, whether by kids or adults. The students have told me having that knowledge of the aggressor helps to take away the perceived power of the child doing the bullying, and they can see it as “Oh, the problem really lies with the kid who's doing the bullying.” That helps kids greatly, as most targets feel they must have done something to “deserve” being bullied. I also tell students no person “deserves” to be bullied. While for us as adults, we may assume kids know that, they don't. Kids tell me they think they must have “done something wrong” or there must be “something different” about them that's not “acceptable,” and I let them know that's not ever the case. 
 
For teachers, a takeaway is I let them know they're not alone in dealing with bullying either. Bullying isn't specific to one school, one grade level, one city, etc. Some teachers ask me, “How do we handle bullying in the classroom?” or “What's the best thing to do if a student reports to me they're being bullied?” Many schools have best practices in place, but various teachers ask these questions because schools have a tough job, most have very limited budgets, and so schools are trying to focus on needed curriculum, and just haven't had the time or budget to focus on bullying. But administrators and teachers are finding if schools don’t address bullying, no child can learn a curriculum when a child’s living in fear every day. It helps school officials to know that the CDC, for instance, has stated that bullying among children is a major public health problem [PDF]. This fact helps teachers know that bullying is a widespread issue and not just occurring at their school. 
 
In order to get Bullies and Friends released with the distribution company, you’re raising money for post-production costs like closed captioning, insurance costs, final sound production, etc. How can people get involved to help with the worldwide release?
People and companies can get involved by going to our film’s website and seeing how they can help with the film's release through crowdfunding and corporate sponsorships. We have a fundraiser on our website, where people can donate any amount from $1 up. 
 
It takes a village to make an independent film with a cause. Through a lot of work by our film team, and grassroots word-of-mouth for Bullies and Friends from schools and organizations, our film team is thrilled that the film has been selected for worldwide release with a distribution company, as only a small percentage of independent films achieve this huge accomplishment. But distributors don't pay for the many pre-distribution costs required, so we're hoping the global community and companies will pitch in and be heroes to help this film get out there to kids, schools, families worldwide. The film's pre-production and production was self-funded through personal resources such as savings, work paychecks, and ultimately, because a filmmaker can't get a typical business loan from a bank to finance a film, I had to make a difficult decision, which was to sell my house in order to get this documentary made. It was not an easy choice to make, but I couldn't sit by and hear on the news of more kids committing suicide due to bullying, knowing that I could potentially make a difference to help prevent it. 
 
With the film's fundraiser, celebrities, companies, and individuals can also donate items, such as signed memorabilia and products that we can utilize to raise the final funds needed. The fabulous Emmy award-winning actress Crystal Chappell from Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful donated signed scripts from her and other wonderful daytime soap stars, and we’ve had other amazing companies and artists step forward.
 
The multi-platinum rock band Simple Plan and Warner Bros./Chappell Music have donated the band's hit song “I’m Just a Kid” for the film, which, donating a hit song is almost unheard of in the music/film industry and it shows Simple Plan's commitment to help prevent bullying and youth suicides. I can't express how appreciative I am to them. The band had spoken out on the incident we document in the film, and in listening to their amazing songs, I felt that “I’m Just a Kid” resonated with the film's theme. When we reached out to Simple Plan and their manager, they immediately said they'd donate their hit song, which they wrote, recorded, as they knew the film was self-funded and they wanted to help the film and its cause. Similarly, the executives I worked with at Warner Bros./Chappell Music in completing arranging to have the song in the film were wonderful. I can't express how grateful we are to them and all the heroes stepping forward to make a difference.  
 
Everyone can also reach out to us via email and ask how else they can help.
 
Say you witness a kid engaging in bullying behavior. You have an opportunity to say one sentence to them. What would it be?
“Stop—you wouldn't want someone to do this to you.” We actually address this aspect right in the film—we have a couple of scenes where we show that if you see another student being bullied, just simply go up and say “Stop.” We’re definitely not saying that if there’s a fistfight going on, step in and get injured—but kids need to know they have the ability to say “Stop.” 
 
In the film we have the exclusive interview with the judge who presided over the trial and handed down the precedent-setting ruling. In her interview, she shares a personal story from her childhood and talks about how this case resonated with her. The judge shares that as a young girl she saw another girl being harassed and pushed around outside school, and she just simply went up and said “Stop,” and the kids walked away. It stopped.
 
Kids sometimes feel they don’t have the ability or permission to just go up and say “Stop.” I think this is because a lot of times adults tell them “Wait for an adult to tell you what to do,” and/or you have to get permission for this or that, and sometimes we as adults forget how many issues kids face every day. All adults—whether teachers, youth counselors, mentors, parents—have to let kids know they have the ability to effect change, to intervene, and to say “Stop.”
 
Yes—it might sound simple, but it can be effective. Just saying “Stop” can be good advice for kids who are bullied too, as well as bystanders, or upstanders.
Right, and with that, people often ask about the title of our film, Bullies and Friends. The title comes from kids at schools I've spoken at, and while filming the documentary, who told me and others on our film team that they look at all kids in one of two categories: You’re either a bully or you’re a friend, as if there’s no other category. So our film’s motto is “Be a Friend,” instead of a bully, and when I speak at events and schools, that’s a phrase I get out there to the students that they really relate to.
 
Every kid needs to be empowered by their parent, guardian, teacher etc. to be a friend, to be an “upstander” instead of a “bystander.” To let kids know they can and should tell the child who's bullying to stop, even if the kid doing the bullying to someone else is a friend of theirs. Also, for kids to know they don't have to follow the pack or group mentality, and that they should report the bullying to a parent or trusted adult. 
 
I also let them know that if they're bullying someone right now, they can turn that around and become a friend instead. Adults have to empower each child with the strength and moral courage to do the right thing and be a friend and upstander, which will be important character traits throughout that child's entire life.
 
Any thoughts or takeaways you’d like to add?
Sometimes parents will say to me “I didn’t think bullying could happen to my son or daughter”(until they became aware of it), or “I didn’t think it was happening at my kid’s school.” Parents need to know that bullying goes on every day, at every school, and it affects every child—whether the child is a bystander, the target of bullying, or the child committing the bullying. However, on a positive note, parents and teachers also need to know the bullying cycle can be broken up, but first we have to recognize it’s a serious issue.
 
Right—it’s not “kids will be kids”—it’s something that can have lifelong and/or devastating effects.
Absolutely. Bullying is not “kids being kids.” Bullying is verbal, physical, psychological abuse and can have lifelong effects, and as we have seen, it can lead to tragic consequences. When I speak at events on bullying, or in media interviews, it impacts teachers, parents, government leaders when I speak about the fact that, if in the workplace, a coworker said to you, “Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. I’m going to meet you in the parking lot and I’m going to beat you up and/or kill you,” as an adult, we would report the threat to our Human Resources department and/or notify law enforcement. And the adult who made the threat could potentially be arrested for making a terrorist threat (a threat made with the intent to instill fear or bodily harm). But we as a society expect that if someone is under 18 years old, and on school property, and makes the same threat to another juvenile, that that's “just kids being kids” or “just bullying.” In thinking about that fact, it gives adults pause. 
 
And that's why as a society we need to address bullying. Each child lost to suicide due to bullying affects us all in a profound way, because we don't know who that child would have grown up to become. That child could have become the scientist who discovered a cure for cancer, a person who helped save animals, a musician whose songs moved us, a writer whose words inspired us, a leader who worked to help others, a teacher who helped educate future children. We simply don't know—but the loss is immeasurable. And that's why I'm working to get the film Bullies and Friends to schools around the globe. 
 
Follow the Bullies and Friends film on Facebook and Twitter, and follow Cassidy on Twitter.
 
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