Between the years of 2005 and 2010, five students from Mentor High School in Mentor, Ohio committed suicide. With all of these cases citing bullying as at least a partial factor into these deaths, documentary filmmaker Alix Lambert set out to Mentor, Ohio to investigate what went wrong. The results are shocking, infuriating and baffling as the film shows a complete lack of help from the school itself. It’s an important film to see, especially for those who have children or work in a school. I spoke with Lambert prior to the film’s screening at Austin Film Festival about the evolution of bullying, some visual elements of the film, the reaction from people in the community and much more. If you don’t have the chance to check out this film at Austin Film Festival, the film will be released on the Vimeo VOD platform on November 18th, which you can preorder here.
Bullying is an issue that is pretty much everywhere. What led you to Mentor, Ohio?
It is everywhere and its one of the questions I get, especially from people in Mentor who feel somehow that it’s an unfair focus. When you see the film and you see the cases, especially the case of Sladjana Vidovic, it’s a very extreme case and it’s an ongoing problem with the school of neglecting to address this issue. I think when you make a film and you want to focus on a subject, you try and find the most extreme example of that subject.
There have been 5 incidences of student suicides at Mentor High School. Was Sladjana’s experience the most extreme and therefore the one you wanted to tell the most?
There were a number of considerations. I was considering following the Mohat’s and the Vidovic’s because they were bringing a lawsuit against the school. For me, as a filmmaker, I want to tell stories that people want to tell. The other families were not being public about what had happened to them and I wasn’t interested in doing anything that a family didn’t want when they had lost a child. These were two families that did want to speak and did want to have their stories heard.
The term “bullying” and what constitutes bullying has very much evolved over the years, especially with the prominence of the internet, but it seems that the perception of the word and what people think of when they hear the word “bullying” has not evolved. Do you think that a substantial number of people have a misconception about what bullying in this current generation looks like?
Yes, and I think that’s an excellent question. That’s a question that I had because I’m not an expert on bullying and I was really lucky and honored that (bullying researcher) Dorothy Espelage agreed to work with me on this film because she is an expert. As a filmmaker and a layman, when you talk to people about bullying, they think you are talking about schoolyard taunting or things that are unkind but not uncommon. When you look into these cases, there’s assault, sexual assault, hate crimes…a long list of things that are done a disservice by being referred to as bullying. They are criminal. They are illegal. They are extreme and there are people being physically hurt, emotionally wounded, sexually assaulted, criticized for their sexual preference, their ethnicity…all sorts of things that are not legal and much more extreme than just “somebody threw a pebble at me on the playground.”
What about the current football hazing story that is going on in New Jersey? It seems like people might not associate that with bullying but it is absolutely bullying.
Exactly. I think that you are seeing this everywhere. I don’t know if it is more prevalent or if you are seeing it more because of the technology we have, but certainly the addition of cyber bullying is something that doesn’t allow kids to get away from it. When I was growing up, you might have had issues but if you left school, you were out of school for however many hours till you had to go back. Sladjana was getting threats on her cell phone. It went beyond the walls of the school and there’s no ability to get away from it. I think that’s really horrific and when you’re an impressionable teenager, you have this feeling like you’re never going to be able to get past it.
I’m sure going into the film you knew about the situation, but once you started filming, were you shocked at all to see how poorly the situation was dealt with, especially in the case of Sladjana?
I was very shocked because I do always attempt to go into any project with an open mind and there is the possibility that there has been this problem clearly at this school but maybe the school is attempting to address it. You don’t know. I don’t want to go with a pre-written idea of what the story is. But every single step we took forward to try and talk to people and every layer that we uncovered was worse than the previous one and her case was really shocking.
Was the plan always to focus on her case or did the story emerge as the one with the most red flags and therefore the one to really focus on?
The film is about both families and some aspect of what I wanted to do was have it be a portrait of grief and what happens to a family and what happens in the wake of a teen suicide. In that sense, the Mohat story is of equal weight and importance and should be seen and felt and empathized with. Because Sladjana’s case had such a long history of paperwork…the Mohat’s were not aware that their son was being bullied…the Vidovic’s were. So there was a long trail that you could follow of their complaints, of them going to the school, of email exchanges, of all sorts of nurses, outside counselors that could verify what happened to her. When the Mohat’s case was dismissed, in terms of filmmaking structure, it was a place where the story went into Sladjana’s story. But anyone who loses a child…this is a horrible tragedy so there is certainly not a feeling that one story was of more importance than the other, but one story was a way to illustrate what had happened at that school more clearly and with more evidence.
One of the things that makes the film so effective is that you do have this evidence. You have a paper trail that shows the proof of severity of the situation that isn’t hearsay; it’s fact. How important was it to feature these documents on screen?
That was really important to me because otherwise you’re making a film that is a he said, she said movie and I think that’s where you can get into trouble if you’re saying “I’m talking to this family and personally and intuitively I believe them but there is nothing to back it up.” Whereas in Sladjana’s case, there was a lot to back it up. It’s part of the reason that this was a case that could be focused on in the film. It’s a challenge of “how do you show that this is a case of neglect and not just a tragedy that happens in a number of places?”
As you see in the film, nobody from the high school and nobody else would speak to you about the film or for the film. Did they give you a reason? Why do you think that is that nobody would speak to you?
Well, I intentionally put those cards up every single time I was denied because otherwise you get the criticism of “why didn’t you get the school to talk?” I would have loved it if some representative of the school had spoken. I’m sure that their argument for not speaking was that there was an open lawsuit. But if I was in their shoes, I think you can at the very least make a statement that says, “we can’t talk about specifics about this case, but our hearts go out to these families.” There was none of that. I have a voicemail from the lawyer for the Mentor School District that was very angry and asking me how I got on the premises of the school which is…I walked in the front door. That also surprised me. I do understand that there are specifics that can’t be spoken about when there is a case that’s open but I also know that you can make more generalized statements of caring for people in your community and in your school.
One thing that you notice is that when you have a tragic incident like that that people or institutions who are accused of having some sort of involvement or pressure put on them…they usually look for someone or something to blame rather than focusing on a solution or making things better. Do you find that line of thinking misguided?
Yeah, of course. Both families talk about being shunned from the community after the death of their children, which is another thing I find quite shocking. You may not agree with the lawsuit, but whether you agree or disagree, these are families that lost a child. You should, at the very least, have some kind of compassion for them. They didn’t experience that and when I put up a trailer for the documentary, which if you look at the trailer has very little information about what was going to be in the documentary…I received threats and tweets and emails from people at the school. Not just students but teachers and parents. That immediate “we’re going to turn around and hate these people and not even looking at why we’re doing that” is a really negative human response.
Are you of the opinion that part of the reason is to protect this image that Mentor has of being one of the best places to live?
Yeah, I share that opinion. I did not grow up in a place like Mentor. I went to an art high school so we were a small group of close friends who were studying art. To be in a community that is so much a culture of conformity and such little diversity and values the football team and any kind of difference seems to be cause for poor treatment. Just being from Croatia seemed to be Sladjana’s entire reason for being bullied. That felt very palpable to me while I was there.
Does that seem to be the common thread with the kids who are bullied? Something is different than everyone else?
Yeah, you either had to fit a very narrow…you’re an athlete, you’re white, you’re a certain type of kid or you’re a problem. That was my general observation. Anybody who didn’t fit this incredibly narrow description was at risk of being bullied.
In doing research about the stories, I came across an ABC News story in 2009 where Mentor High School spoke to the press and claimed that they used the Olweus Anti-Bullying Campaign, yet in Meghan Barr’s AP report, and in the film, nobody in the school will speak to you or provide any information about the anti-bullying campaign. And actually, in the film, in one of the internal e-mails you see on screen, someone says that they need to formally activate the Olweus program. Do you think that statement that they made was true, first of all, and why do you think that there was an about face from the district when it came to speaking directly to Meghan versus this previous report?
My sense was that they paid lip service to taking on this program but they never activated it. They never had a kick off day, they never did any of the things they said they were going to do. When you see those emails, that’s what you see. Those e-mails happened after these suicides. In my opinion, they were panicking and saying “We’ve gotta get this bullying program underway because we have a problem here.” But it’s not “we have a problem and we care about these kids or these families.” It’s “we have a problem because we have not done what we said we would do.”
One other thing that I’ve noticed in reading stories or videos is that you’ll see a lot of comments that have statements like “I went to Mentor High School and I wasn’t bullied” or “things at Mentor are fixed and better now.” While these things may be true, that doesn’t change the fact that A. these things happened and B. it took the suicides of 5 teenagers in order for something to be done.
My impression is that things are not better. I continue to get emails from students who are bullied; I continue to get angry responses. It’s a big school. Just because there are students who are not bullied does not mean there is not a problem in the school. I think some of these comments from students who may have had a good experience at Mentor…it’s like “Great, you had a good experience at Mentor but you’re not in a position to tell me whether there’s a problem there because there are a lot of other students who are contradicting what you are saying.” When I see these comments that are like “well this is not going on anymore” and it’s from a student who had a good experience there I feel like…based on what? Great, I’m happy that you had a good experience but what are you basing your knowledge on that 4,000 other students also had a good experience last year?
Do you find that there’s a sweep it under the rug mentality going on with this situation?
That’s my sense. When I receive e-mails from students who are being bullied, they want to remain anonymous. I think when people want to remain anonymous it’s because they are afraid. If they’re afraid to be in school and say “this is happening to me,” then that’s a problem that hasn’t been fully addressed.
For me, the most powerful part of the film was when we see the visualization of Sladjana’s suicide note at the end of the film. I think it’s the perfect punctuation of a really affecting story. Can you talk about your decision to end the film that way and your intention with the visualization?
The suicide note is the only opportunity to hear Sladjana to speak for herself. She left an incredibly detailed and long suicide note. Some part of it is written in English and some part is written in Croatian. I felt like…here’s the opportunity that is a rare opportunity for this young woman to speak for herself. A lot of the note was about what happened to her in school. So I thought, “Here’s a first hand account of this. How do you put it on screen without it being an enormous amount of text?” I worked with Hannah Neufeld who is my editor that I’ve worked with many, many years and we came up with what we felt would be a graphic treatment of the note that would represent who Sladjana is. She loved pink and she had a personality that we felt that we had gotten to know through talking to her family and spending time there. Then my friend Buddy and his music partner Will Golden…that song is the Mentor school song but I had him cover the song in a way that makes it ironic and poignant.
Of the things to come from the film and the discussions that should be had, do you feel like there is an equal focus on bullying and teenage suicide? Suicide is the number 3 cause of death between teenagers and young adults and a very serious issue.
Absolutely. There has been a lot of discussion of bullying and lots about teen suicide and I think that it is an incredibly important issue. I think that feeling of you’re never going to get past it when in fact if you can just get past graduation, you’re into the world…I would love to contribute somehow to helping teenagers feel like they can make it into adulthood. That was definitely something I wanted to address.
The film deals with very intense emotions and terrible and sad stories about injustices and kids being treated horribly. As a documentary filmmaker, when you’re hearing these stories, I assume you know you are getting great, compelling footage for your film but how do you deal with the emotional weight or even the frustration that comes from what you’re hearing?
It’s very difficult. All of my documentaries have upsetting subject matter and I think you have to be careful. I talk to other journalists and documentarians about this all the time. It’s a balancing act of taking care of yourself so that you can tell the story and not absorbing so much that you yourself become depressed. It’s not an easy thing to spend all of your time working on.
Around the time you started filming the movie, Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” came out, which was a really interesting look at bullying actually happening rather than seeing the effects of it after the fact. Do you feel like that film changed the conversation about bullying at all and do you hope that your film reinforces that point?
Definitely. I support that film enormously. I think that for me, my strength is to focus more on the emotional aftermath of what happens. The two films compliment each other and hopefully can be in conversation together as a way of looking at the problem because I think they address different parts of the issue.
When “Bully” came out, people were talking about showing the movie in schools and showing it to students. Do you feel like your film is something that should be shown to schools or at the very least to school administration so they know exactly what not to do?
Yeah. I think it should not be shown to anyone under 18. I’ve talked to organizations about copycat suicides and younger kids seeing things that they copy. I do think that for parents, administrators and teachers, it’s a film I’d like to use in an educational way.
Speaking of “Bully,” when that movie came out, one of my colleagues at our site tried to track down the person who bullied him when he was a kid and found out that he was in prison. Of course, he’s of a different generation and we’ve talked about how the idea of a bully has evolved over time. Do you feel like the face of the common bully has changed from what it used to be? Are these kids that do it now headed down a similar path or are they well adjusted? What have you found in looking into this?
I haven’t followed that many of the bullies in terms of what they went on to do. I have heard from the families that some of the specific bullies from the school have had problems with the law and drugs and criminal activity. I don’t think that it’s a great path to be on. But also, there are people who are bullies that go on to successful careers in whatever so I don’t know. I don’t know the statistics on that but I certainly don’t think morally or ethically it bodes well for your future as a human being.
Do you think that the introduction of cyber bullying has allowed people who wouldn’t normally engage in those behaviors face-to-face to have this barrier in between them to, in their minds, make it okay?
I responded to all threats that I got and I said, “We’re still filming, would you like to speak on camera” and nobody said “yes.” So I absolutely feel like there’s a safety for these kids to be aggressive and angry behind a computer in a way that they then chose not to speak to me at all when I was in person.
Have you returned to Mentor at all or done any follow-ups?
The film screened at the Chagrin Film Festival, which is only about 20 minutes from Mentor two weeks ago. I really wanted to be there because both families were there, the lawyer was there. I was in a car accident right before that and I was not able to travel, so I really regret that that’s the festival I missed. I would have liked to have stood from the families. But they responded very well to it and I’ve spoken to them since then and that meant a lot to me…how they felt about the film. But I haven’t been back to Mentor since we finished filming.
What do you feel is the best course of action for helping the bullying problem? Do you think that awareness enough or does there need to be school intervention? Education to students? Parents?
Again, I would defer that question to Dorothy. I wouldn’t want to recommend the wrong solution. I certainly think education, awareness and empathy training…I think that people need to be concerned about people in their community and they need to consider people in their community as people in their community. There was a lot of “these people are not part of our community” and I think that’s a systemic problem that needs to change. People need to consider who is in their community and who they are.
We hear the fate of the federal cases in the film and it’s a little frustrating to see especially given the seemingly large amount of evidence that the Vidovic’s had, but are there still cases pending on the state level?
There are. The school settled with the Mohat’s. I don’t know the details of that settlement. The Vidovic’s are still in appeal. Ken, who is the lawyer for both families, has been updating me it’s kind of changing every day, but yes. The Mohat’s did come to a settlement and we hope the same thing will happen for the Vidovic’s.