Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor
For quite a while now, I've breathed a sigh of relief that my children are grown and not subjected to today's middle schools and high schools, with their achingly paranoid approaches to security and their obeisance to the principles of zero tolerance. As I've watched news account after news account of some kindergartener arrested for kissing a classmate, a middle school girl suspended for possessing Midol, an entire South Carolina high school raided for drugs as if it were an Afghan Taliban hangout, I've known that something was rotten in the way we treat our kids.
But I never gave it serious thought, never developed a comprehensive critique of our ever more freaked-out approach to youth, our desire to protect them from some drugs while doping them with others, or our increasingly authoritarian educational system. "The War on Kids" does. Winner of the best educational film at this year's New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the 99-minute film smartly and entertainingly documents baseless and excessive punishment by schools and police, extreme forms of social repression, scapegoating by the media, exclusion from mainstream society and what can only be called pharmacological abuse.
All of this dehumanizing and psychological damaging abuses rise from our desire to protect -- or is it control? -- our kids. We want to protect them from violence and from drugs, from teenage sex and drinking. And this, of course, is where the war on drugs intersects with the war on kids, each reinforcing the other in an ever-increasing spiral of repressive, oppressive responses.
Unsurprisingly -- although this is underdeveloped in the film -- our story begins in the scary Reagan years of "just say no" and teen "superpredators." That was the time of the rise of zero tolerance, a policy that substitutes rigid, harshly punitive rules for common sense and an individual approach. Zero tolerance was originally about protecting students from weapons, but devolved into suspending them for drawing pictures of guns. And it was about protecting them from violence, but devolved into arresting them for schoolyard fights. And it was about protecting them from drugs -- some drugs anyway -- but devolved into strip searches of teen girls for Ibuprofen, suspending them for possession of Alka-Seltzer, and turning over anyone caught with a joint to the police.
As youth sociologist Mike Males, author of "Scapegoat Nation," put it in the film: "They must conform, they must have constant monitoring and supervision, schools won't tolerate a single drop of alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no sex. This is absolutist conformity to arbitrary rules that are one size fits all."
Males goes on to note that despite the virtual panic over teen prescription drug use and overdoses, the real pain pill and OD epidemic is among the middle-aged. "It's not permissible to discuss drug use as a middle aged problem, so we have this unreal discussion about teens," he notes.
The youth, of course, are a convenient scapegoat. As much as they encapsulate our hopes and dreams, they also represent our fears and nightmares. Much better to project all that crap onto the kids than look into the mirror and deal with it ourselves.
The flip side of the war on drugs is the bizarre resort to the doping of a generation with Adderall, Ritalin, and the rest of the cavalcade of "good drugs." Here again, the filmmakers shine, turning a bright spotlight onto such insidious, invidious practices. The juxtaposition of the film's two drug chapters also shines a bright light on our whole insane approach to pharmaceutical substances. If a kid gets caught with cocaine, he is expelled and jailed. If a kid is on prescription Ritalin, all is good. Never mind that the two drugs produce almost identical biopharmaceutical effects.
"The War on Kids" is not just about the war on drugs. It also delves into the ever more Orwellian surveillance state built in the schools, the roles of administrators and teachers as akin to those of prison guards, and even the authoritarian architecture of the public school. (When driving through the countryside and coming across a grim, fenced, nearly windowless edifice, I find myself saying, "That's either a school or a prison.")
But the war on drugs and the war on kids feed on each other. Our draconian approaches to drug use and drug policy are a critical component of the war on kids. "The War on Kids" reveals that interaction, but also places it within the much broader context of our society's fear of urge to control our youth. In so doing, it unmasks the cant, the hypocrisy, and the fear-mongering that too often pass for reasoned analysis of the problems of youth.
As the Who once famously put it: "The kids are alright!" It's the grown-ups that have me worried.