The documentary film The War on Kids argues that public schools have become overly restrictive and ineffective due in part to an irrational fear of young peoples potential for violence. The films creator said he is not certain the existing system can be reformed. Included: Examples of the repressive nature of public schools.
Named the best educational documentary by the New York Independent Film and Video Festival, The War on Kids argues that the U.S. public school system has more in common with a penal system than anything educational. The filmmakers maintain that public schools have failed the nations children and future by robbing students of all freedoms due largely to irrational fears that young people pose a threat to society.
Children are subjected to endure prison-like security, arbitrary punishments, and pharmacological abuse through the forced prescription of dangerous drugs, according to a press release for the film. Even with these measures, schools not only fail to educate students, but the drive to teach has become secondary to the need to control children. Not only do schools fall short of their mission to educate, but they erode the countrys democratic foundation and often resemble prisons.
Among those interviewed are students, high school teachers and administrators, and prison security guards, as well as nationally-known educators and authors such as Alfie Kohn; Henry Giroux, author of Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture's War on Children; Mike A. Males, a sociologist and author of Scapegoat Generation: Americas War on Adolescents; John Gatto, New York City and New York State Teacher of the Year; Judith Browne, associate director of the Advancement Project; and Harvards Dan Losen of the Civil Rights Project.
Cevin Soling, director and producer of The War on Kids, talked with Education World about his motivation for making the film and how he came to his perception of the public school system.
Cevin Soling: Unwelcoming conditions go well beyond issues of security, but certainly sums up the state of schools these days. There are too many variations within urban and suburban categories to generalize; however, I assume your distinction relates to relative affluence. Schools with greater resources often spend their funds on highly advanced security systems. Where a school with minimal resources may use cameras with fisheye lenses, a more affluent school will have state-of-the-art color cameras with superior optics. Metal detectors are not as common in suburban schools, but many will implement other invasive measures. For example, security firms that offer drug sniffing dogs market their services to inspect the lockers of students in the more affluent school districts. It is hard to say which is worse. Certainly dilapidated schools appear worse on the surface, but at the same time they don't exercise the same degree of scrutiny that often exists at a more affluent school. Ultimately, distinctions between urban and suburban aren't material since schools are all unwelcoming in their own unique ways.
EW: What prompted you to make this film?
Soling: I went to one of the best public [high] schools in the country -- in Scarsdale, N.Y., and graduated with honors. I also never had a single disciplinary issue. In short, I had one of the better experiences the system has to offer and I still found it to be profoundly degrading, psychologically detrimental, and intolerable in general. Sane people would not voluntarily subject themselves to those conditions. No students enjoy being in school unless they had their imaginations crushed to the point where they can no longer conceive of other ways of learning or socializing -- which is the state of mind schools seek to attain. The problem is that kids have no say, no voice, and virtually no rights. This film was intended to express the collective voice of children.
Soling: My approach was to examine the essential nature of the institution. I analyzed the basic elements that are present at all public schools, including authoritarian frameworks and rigid curriculum where instruction is fragmented into different subjects and taught in classrooms filled with many other students who are all the same age and segregated by academic performance. This is not a complete list, but these elements exist at all schools and my film studies what results under these conditions. The consequences are bleak and inevitable.
EW: What did your research find was at the root of schools developing more strict policies?
Soling: Strict policies are only a part of the problem. Irrational fear of kids was certainly the greatest factor. If domestic violence against kids were broadcast on the news after each incident, there would be a campaign calling for the installation of security cameras in everyones homes. School violence is almost statistically insignificant by comparison, especially when you factor out the violence caused by efforts to intentionally repress kids -- like the use of prescription drugs, for example. Security is often the number one priority at schools -- even above education -- it is a response to sensationalized fear generated by the media. School administrators are obliged to respond to the concerns of parents and school boards, so blame for this state of affairs cannot be pinned solely on them, though they should know better and not participate in gross abuse of power.
EW: Many educators say now they must take on more roles parents used to because many children come to school lacking self-discipline and appropriate social skills. Is the role of parents addressed in the film?
Soling: From my research and interviews, I've found the complaints you describe to be generally accurate. While it is easy to say that parents can and should do more, and they should, this situation is confused by issues such as a rising industry of experts who promote medication instead of parenting, which obviates the role of the parent. In addition, economic and social factors are a major issue. Many kids come from broken homes with one parent or where both parents work. Naturally, those pressures and time demands make it hard to parent properly. Lastly, schools operate under the dictum of in loco parentis, which literally means in the place of a parent." Schools and courts have traditionally interpreted this to mean that schools have all the rights of parents, but none of the responsibilities or emotional obligations. Teachers and administrators rarely, if ever, treat any student as if they were their own, yet they have remarkable power when it comes to punishment. Parents who are powerless to intercede when schools infiltrate their childs lives in unprecedented ways with a great degree of impunity now have unconsciously accepted their helplessness. It is actually a natural response to the profound scope of intrusion schools have over childrens lives.
Soling: The most dismaying and controversial part of making this film was initiated by Morgan Emrich, a public school teacher who was one of my interview subjects. He saw an early edit and told me I was presenting two distinctly different positions. One held that problem policies like zero tolerance, general abuse of administrative power, class size, and concerns over having qualified teachers, etc., all need to be addressed -- that, basically, the system needs to be reformed. The other position was that reform is simply not possible because the intrinsic design of the system will not permit it. I became increasingly convinced of the latter during the six-year process of making the film. This notion that schools are not capable of being effectively reformed is not a message most people can bear to hear. It requires great creativity and a revolutionary spirit to be willing to propose a replacement for an existing institution. Better means are already out there, so the process is merely one of revealing the problems of the existing model to the public and getting everyone to think more about the welfare of kids rather than blindly assuming something is good simply because it has a noble mission.
This e-interview with Cevin Soling is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.