Film Compares Schools to Prison

American public schools are crumbling–literally. In the documentary, The War on Kids, children are depicted learning on wobbly, broken desks in dimly lit classrooms featuring blackboards stained with last year’s lesson.

According to the documentary, what’s worse is that security is prioritized over privacy and individuality in these institutions. Scenes of children entering metal detectors before class and lying on the ground due to police searches offer a stark reality check as to what students face in their schools.

The consequences of these conditions, as put forth by The War on Kids, are seen in generations of students being filtered through our authoritarian system, stripping them of their constitutional rights, only to have them graduate into a state of learned helplessness.

The 2009 documentary illustrates these points by presenting a side-by-side examination of an average American public school and a minimum security prison for adult offenders in Ohio.

The controversial doc won Best Educational Documentary for the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. Director Cevin Soling spoke with BTR about his drive to focus the lens on what he says often gets overlooked by education critics: the system itself.

“The prison population is certainly a disenfranchised population but children are literally disenfranchised,” explains Soling. “They cannot vote, they have no representation, they have no say–so it’s much easier to subject them to all sorts of abuses.”

A walk-through of the prison juxtaposed to the public school visually compares the physical conditions of the two. For instance, a well-stocked, colorful library for inmates is shown next to the school’s dark, gated library. In addition, various experts in child psychology and education express in the documentary their contempt for school environments as overall oppressive.

The increase in security began with the Zero Tolerance policy, which was instituted in the 1990s, and was taken to extremes after the Columbine shooting in 1999. The policy punished any infraction of carrying weapons or drugs, but grew incredibly arbitrary in deciding what is considered a “weapon.” Kindergarteners eventually were being suspended for playing games like cops and robbers and using their fingers as guns.

The fear mongering against children is seen by Soling as a consequential evolvement from the militarized school system taken from Prussia in the 1850s. The Prussian education system, designed by Frederick the Great, was engineered to teach soldiers, from a young age, obedience and give structure for hierarchical control. Horace Mann, the person responsible for America’s public school system, found the Prussian model practical in its ability to teach literacy on a mass scale–a main concern at the turn of the century.

“[The Prussian system] was problematic from the beginning,” describes Soling. “In the beginning the National Guard had to be called in as there was great resistance among the parents for having their kids taken away and things like Zero Tolerance are natural evolutions in the way things feed on themselves and the inability for kids to have any meaningful voice.”

The National Association of School Psychologists admit that the Zero Tolerance policies have resulted in more negative outcomes than positive and disproportionately targets minority students, instilling unnecessary fear. Additionally, there have been no proven benefits to preventing school shootings or other violent behavior by installing cameras and increasing police security on school grounds.

In fact, the film argues that the system itself is conducive to violent, erratic behavior. Which is believed to result in children with depression, anxiety, stress, and disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), according to Soling.

Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), uses language to diagnose ADD in terms of a disobedient child in the classroom, listing symptoms such as: “fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork” or “often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.”

“Giving drugs that are Schedule 2 drugs to children is not even a cure, no one claims that the drugs cure anything,” complains Soling. “The drugs are designed, allegedly, to treat a symptom and they don’t acknowledge that the environment is responsible for creating these behavioral symptoms.”

So where can children truly find refuge and in a flourishing learning space?

Photo courtesy of Cevin Soling.

Soling suggests alternatives to the Prussian system taking place today. Homeschooling methods and more democratic structures allow for students to have a say in what they want to learn. They become engaged citizens that are interested in questioning and creating innovation instead of following the rules.

Institutions like The Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, is held in esteem for its democratic principals. It has thrown away all foundations of the American public schooling system.

Instead of building a feed of information to students, children are taught to take on a “follow your bliss” (to quote Joseph Campbell) methodology. On their own terms, they learn math, science, and art due to strong passions.

For those that don’t have the privilege to walk away from the compulsive schooling systems of America, Soling has developed the Student Resistance Handbook. The book gives advice and information on nonviolent tactics to empower students to undermine their schools.

“There are a whole bunch of simple ways: expressing dissent, printing flyers for cars, posting it on kiosks and trying to get the word out on what they are unhappy about in their school,” advises Soling. “This causes a great deal of tension within their community and this bubble will burst the illusions.”

Soling believes many students are conditioned to enjoy the structure of school systems today. Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, American students have a special appreciation for their captors and masters because they see no way out.

But what is the use when all our rotary knowledge is limited in its ability to produce something remunerative in the reality of a society that depends most fundamentally on individual initiative, choice, and exchange.

Feature photo courtesy of Cliff.