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Katy Butler Takes Bullying Awareness to National Stage

Seventeen-year-old Plymouth native earns spotlight after protesting "R" rating for "Bully" documentary.

Seventeen-year-old Katy Butler has taken her fight against bullying to a national stage.

Butler, who said she was bullied after coming out as a lesbian while at West Middle School in Plymouth, was outraged when she heard “Bully,” a new documentary about bullying, earned an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

The film reveals the often-devastating effects of bullying in schools.

An “R” rating prohibits anyone younger than 17 from seeing the film without a parent or guardian present, and could keep the film from being screened at schools.

“The intended audience is middle school and high school students,” Butler said, as they are the age groups often associated with bullying. “Being rated ‘R’ just takes that away from them.”

Intent on spreading the film’s message wherever she could, Butler started an online petition on website Change.org to change the movie's rating from "R" to "PG-13."

From there, the petition gained traction, and started to draw the attention of some influential personalities.

Celebrities, media embrace Butler's efforts

Butler’s petition gained support from American Idol judge Randy Jackson, NBA legend Michael Jordan, NFL star Drew Brees, Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, among others.

DeGeneres even noted Butler's efforts on her talk show.

Butler also has appeared alongside filmmakers on various national news programs while trying to change the MPAA’s mind about the movie during a meeting in Los Angeles. 

The Washington Post hailed Butler as "a new voice against bullying," and Butler wrote a first-person account of the bullying she sustained for the Daily Beast.

Butler's recent fame also earned her a meeting with lawmakers in Washington.

“Further in the future, we’re working on a national anti-bullying law,” she said. “I’m really excited for that.”

Butler is no stranger to politics: She previously worked with state lawmakers in 2011 on to encourate the removal of she said would allow bullying if someone provided moral or religious justification. The language was removed before Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law.

The national attention hasn’t fazed Butler, though.

“I mean, for me it’s been absolutely incredible,” she said. “I’ve had so much fun doing it.”

While the effort hasn’t yet changed the minds of MPAA voters, movie producers have opted to release the film without a rating from the MPAA as Butler’s petition has collected more than 500,000 signatures nationwide.

“I do think it’s a possibility they could reverse the rating,” she said. “Half a million people, that’s a lot of pressure.”

The movie earned a “Pause 13+” rating from independent ratings group Common Sense Media, and that rating will be listed on posters. Movie theater chain AMC has embraced the film and will allow those under 17 to see it, provided they have a permission slip from a parent or guardian. Movie theaters do not typically accept films for screening based on rating systems other than the MPAA.

"AMC obviously is a huge movie theater chain, which is great because they're setting an example for all of the other theaters," Butler said.

Sexual identity led to bullying

For Butler, the driving force behind this effort is possibility of saving lives by preventing suicide by victims of bullying.

Bullying has increasingly been cited as a contributing factor for teen suicide. A Yale study indicated youths who are bullied are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.

“Unfortunately, I know why people have taken their lives because of bullying,” she said. “Unfortunately, I know where they’re coming from.”

Butler said she became increasingly victimized in middle school after confiding to her then-best friend that she was gay. She said word soon got out about her sexual identity.

“A lot of people, unfortunately, in the school were not OK with that,” she said. “They called me names and pushed me into the wall, pushed me into my locker. One time, they ended up breaking my finger.”

Faced with moving on to a 6,200-student Plymouth-Canton Educational Park campus where she feared the bullying would continue, Butler left the district after 8th grade and now is a junior at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, a smaller private school.

“(My parents) switched me because they saw how miserable I was,” she said.

Butler said she now calls Ann Arbor home, as she spends most of her time there, but her parents live in Plymouth.

She said she hopes to attend the University of Michigan and continue her work with anti-bullying awareness and legislation and gay rights issues to make lives easier for those who find themselves targets for bullies.

"I want those kids to just hang on," she said. "I’m not going to tell you it gets better because it can’t get better unless we make it better.

"A lot of people, including the MPAA, aren’t working to make it better," Butler said. "I definitely am and I’m doing my part."

Butler's petition can be signed on Change.org.

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