Are public schools becoming more and more like prisons?
That’s what the documentary “The War on Kids” says.
Based on interviews with educators, medical professionals, students and sociologists, the documentary, which received a limited film festival run in 2009 and is being released this week on the Documentary Channel, paints the picture of an increasingly authoritarian and paranoid school system that is failing its students, stripping them of their civil liberties and constitutional rights.
“Kids have no voice. Everyone pretends to care, but it is never true, and it’s the children who are being blamed for all the failings in the education system,” filmmaker Cevin Soling told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “People do not learn when they are in such an autocratic environment.”
The film points the finger at the public school system’s “zero tolerance” guidelines designed to keep weapons off campus. Spurred in large part by the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, many school districts have since adopted policies that strictly prohibit the possession of weapons on school grounds. And while each district has its own code of conduct, the film says some have broad definitions of what constitutes a weapon.
"The War on Kids" points out an alarming number of incidents in which children were suspended, expelled and even arrested for possessing food knives, nail clippers, key chains, aspirin, candy – even chicken strips.
In one incident, kindergarten kids were suspended for playing cops and robbers using their fingers as guns. Another student was suspended for drawing a picture of an armed soldier. In another, a six-year-old boy was suspended for waving around his breaded chicken lunch and saying “pow.”
Soling says some children considered problems are put on psychiatric medications in an effort to control them.
One student, Dan Rachlitz, says in the film that he was told he had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and was “put on drugs that made (him) high,” but found out later he didn’t have a medical disorder, he just acts a “little crazy” by nature.
Public school teacher Morgan Emrich noted that in his experience, the children treated with prescription drugs never seem to learn better, and lose their energy much faster.
“These are kids that used to be energetic and vivacious, bouncing off the walls and have a ton of opinions. Now they sit there and stare at the floor,” he said.
For Soling, the film is more about civil rights than anything else.
“Children have no voice and childhood has become pathologized. Kids in America are horrendously oppressed and we have systems or propaganda which obscure the fact,” he explained. “The complaints people have about kids – they don’t want to read, they watch too much TV, they have no respect for authority, etc. – are all a reaction to repression.”
Not everyone agrees with Soling’s conclusions.
“The anecdotal information, which enlivens any documentary, can be attacked as not the whole picture. ‘The War on Kids’ presents no coherent remedy for the various problems, but some may conclude that the solution is the abolition of public schools,” stated one writer for the Political Film Society.
A review on children’s book publisher Scholastic’s blog noted that “the movie seems pretty over the top, juxtaposing interviews with (mostly white) parents angry about how kids are being treated and footage of (mostly black and brown) kids getting arrested or searched for drugs in school.”
The Village Voice’s Ella Taylor wrote that the documentary is missing is “a dissenting voice to point out that some kids (and their families) do benefit from medication, that some schools are located in such high-crime areas that no security at all would be pure folly, and that some safety-obsessed parents refuse to allow their children to walk to school by themselves, yet drive them up to the front gates dressed like hookers.”
The U.S. Department of Education was not able to provide comment from a rep that had seen the film. However press secretary Daren Briscoe told us that the department believes that “students learn best in class” and not when suspended.
“We are obviously very engaged and concerned with making sure students receive equitable education,” Briscoe said.
“The War on Kids” debuts on the Documentary Channel May 6 at 8 and 11pm ET/PT.