The War on Kids

The War on Kids

I saw The War on Kids projected onto a small screen in the ballroom of a hotel at a public screening, presented during a convention of people involved in alternative schooling, and the filmmaker and others were present to take questions and discuss the film afterwards. I believe what I saw was the final version of the film, though it’s possible it was a nearly final draft compared to what was eventually released.

The War on Kids is a powerful, solid documentary denouncing the “prisonication” (I made that up—it’s not from the movie) of contemporary American public schools.

The film relates how American schooling has drifted farther and farther in the direction of totalitarian control of the students. “No tolerance” policies have not only meant lots of new rules, but a lessening of discretion in enforcing them. Power has been taken away from principals and other school officials to use judgment, decide when to look the other way, give warnings instead of punishment, etc. (“No tolerance” is to principals as the Rockefeller drug laws are to judges.)

The result is that not only is it routine for kids to be very harshly punished for such horrific acts as having a joint in their locker, but at the margins you have oddball cases like grade school students being suspended for drawing a picture of a knife, pointing a chicken strip and saying “Pow!” etc., on the grounds that no discretion can be allowed about such matters, that once you allow common sense exceptions in extreme cases, you’ll fall down a slippery slope to where “anything goes.”

As courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, have held, minors have very little in the way of rights. So a lot of what would at least slow the march to totalitarianism in the case of adults is simply not present when we’re talking about kids. They can be searched, interrogated without a lawyer (a common trick is to have a teacher or principal or other adult the student trusts do the interrogating, with the obtained information then immediately turned over to law enforcement), presumed guilty until proven innocent, etc., in ways that are recognized as unambiguously unconstitutional if done to adults.

One of the alarming consequences of this, by the way, is precisely a lessening of respect among minors for the basic Bill of Rights liberties. They might resent the way they’re treated, but at a deeper level they get the message that might makes right, that—directed at other folks and for different purposes—the tactics themselves are legitimate. As polls indicate, a disturbingly large percentage of kids believe that newspapers should only be allowed to publish what the government gives them permission to, that there is no right to free speech when it comes to unpopular opinions, etc. Having become used to an environment of coercion and conformity, they assume that’s just how the world is and ought to be, and they carry those attitudes into adulthood.

Not exactly the kind of education that makes for empowered democratic citizens.

How did we reach this state of affairs? Primarily out of motives of safety and security. The less schools are like prisons, the theory goes, the more you’ll have out of control drug use, weapons, gangs, bullying, and unruly behavior in general. There are plenty of people who will (very grudgingly) put up with a certain amount of disagreeable behavior from adults—due to that pesky matter of their rights—but will bring all available forces to bear in attempting to stamp it out amongst children.

And so you end up with metal detectors, cops patrolling schools, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, Bull Connor-style dogs snarling at terrified children sitting obediently in rows in hallways with their hands behind their heads, playground shoving matches being referred to law enforcement, and that kid barely beyond toddler age being vigorously punished for brandishing a chicken strip.

The film includes a worthwhile section on the overmedication of children, the successful efforts of Big Pharma to get as large a range as possible of childhood behavior labeled as diseased and in need of medication. Thus the explosive increase in the use of Ritalin and other drugs to make kids more docile.

As one indignant academic interviewee notes, if a student objects to any of this, then that is regarded as a manifestation of the mental illness “school phobia,” which of course warrants medicating such child against his or her will. (Why not “prison phobia” or “concentration camp phobia”? he wonders. Aren’t those comparable mental illnesses?)

I like almost everything about this movie, except as a purist about critical thinking I balk just a bit at its polemical nature. Granted it’s nowhere near as extreme as some documentaries in that regard, but it’s still a brief for one side, and one side only.

As such it makes a good, but far from conclusive, case.

A lot of its material, as you would expect in a documentary, is anecdotal, and chosen for its emotional impact. Not that the incidents cited carry no evidential weight, but you want to be careful not to go too far with that kind of evidence. All institutions, laws, policies—good and bad—will result in idiocies of one kind or another. Democracy can result in a George W. Bush becoming President, constitutional rights can result in an obviously guilty person going free, free speech can result in Nazis publishing newspapers filled with anti-Semitic diatribes, etc., but those outcomes by themselves don’t invalidate those ideas.

So specific outrageous incidents alone aren’t enough to invalidate the prisonication of schools as a social policy (though they’re certainly relevant evidence in that direction).

I appreciated the expert opinion interviews from academics and such, and thought that played an important role in bolstering the film’s case, but even there we need to keep in mind that you can always find someone who’s an expert in some sense to say whatever you need said on camera (or on the witness stand).

So I would have liked to see the “other side” given more of a chance to make their case. As it is, the film includes the occasional clip of some principal or other representative of officialdom speaking proudly about the increased discipline at their school, but there’s not much of that, and certainly no sustained argument.

But there are a lot of people—many minority parents, for instance—who are strong believers that schools need to run a tight ship, and who applaud a lot of these draconian policies. Even if they’re wrong, it would have been nice to see the film treat their perspective with more respect, and allow them more of a say.

But that being said, I’m very much on board with this film. It’s intellectually pretty good even though not flawless, emotionally it pushed enough buttons in me to keep me engaged and indignant, and it’s even funny when it tries to be. It isn’t solely a dry treatment of a depressing issue, but is put together in an entertaining manner that kept me engaged the whole way.

I would have said all that before the ending, and then the ending pushed it to a higher level for me. I agreed pretty much throughout the movie that the cases presented as outrageous and upsetting were indeed outrageous and upsetting, and I felt like the movie was hitting me at a pretty deep level, but the closing scene of the cop hovering over the crying seven year old girl in handcuffs jolted me beyond that. As the lights came up, I realized I was choked up.

The War on Kids infuriated me, affected me emotionally the way maybe 5% at most of the movies I’ve written about have done. I hate what we’re doing to children. I really hope as many people as possible will see this film, and maybe rethink some of their attitudes about how it’s beneficial and necessary to coerce kids “for their own good.”

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