PFS Film Review
The War on Kids


Two countries have failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Anarchic Somalia is one. The United States is the other. Many Senators ostensibly refuse to do so for fear that children, supported by meddling attorneys, will sue their parents and thus destroy family unity. Similarly, the media has focused on the waterboarding of three suspected terrorists in Bush’s “war on terror” but not on the thousands of children who have been captured, incarcerated, deprived of parental contact, interrogated, and thereby abused to such an extent that they have been tortured with impunity.

Why the disinterest in the rights of children within the United States? The apparent main reason, that American adults want to maintain control over children, is the thesis of the documentary The War on Kids, directed by Cevin Soling with commentaries by students, public school teachers and administrators, college professors, and an ACLU attorney. The subtext appears to be that homeschooling is preferable.

The documentary is organized into eight chapters with titles: (1) The segment Zero Tolerance demonstrates that opposition to weapons on campus has been carried to such an extreme that nail files are contraband, resulting in disciplinary action for those who bring them to school. (2) School Security likens the metal detectors and surveillance cameras on campus to those in prisons but reports no resulting reduction in school violence. (3) The War on Drugs features a SWAT team storming a school on the pretext that drugs were being sold on campus but found no drugs and terrified nearly one hundred pupils who were sniffed by police dogs while forced to lie on the floor. (4) The segment Administrators and Teachers argues that children are the victims of control freaks. (5) Pharmaceutical Drugs, the most important contribution of the film, points out that pupils falsely deemed “disruptive” are overprescribed Ritalin and other medicines, resulting in psychological harm, including the effect of drugs on the student responsible for the Columbine Massacre. (6) The Public Education segment points out that schools are under siege by corporations, evangelicals, and test requirements that undermine education while support services are cut. (7) Homework is attacked as an undesirable, ineffective chore that has little demonstrable educational value unless linked to classwork performed on the very same day. (8) Socialization, finally, argues that students in classrooms are regimented, whereas out of the classroom they gather together in cliques that demand conformity and antipathy to outgroups.

Various studies are cited in support of the claims in the film as well as statements that no studies refute the thesis. Most chilling are Supreme Court decisions that permit children to be beaten at school without a prior hearing and allow school officials to censor student newspapers. The War on Kids argues that educational progress and democratic values are diminished by the various restrictive measures. The most shocking facts are presented in news accounts and headline events presented on teleivision, but they could be discounted as exceptional rather than endemic to public schools today. The documentary has exposed many problems in some public schools today, but not how pervasive they are. What is needed is for systematic research to demonstrate, for example, that the testing required of the No Child Left Beyond law actually retards educational outcomes and stifles the joy of learning. 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. MH

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