In Alarming Film, Director Cevin Soling Explores School vs. Prison


If you want to watch a scary movie this summer, don’t go to your local cinema.

Log onto YouTube and watch director Cevin Soling’s The War on Kids, a shocking documentary that explores how America’s public schools have become more like prisons—where students have few rights and must adhere to a growing number of arbitrary and strict rules.

“The testimony of children who say they like school isn’t necessarily a valid statement, or it can’t really be used as a defense of an institution that objectively deprives people of liberty,” Soling says.

Case in point: the 2003 police raid at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina.

It’s difficult to watch scary police dogs barking at students, and officers yelling at kids to get on the ground.

“What was most shocking about that, which unfortunately didn’t make it into the film, was the communal support for the raid,” Soling says. “There were people who were opposed to it, but a much, much more vocal group was in favor of the raid. The parents in the community thought that the raid was a good thing, because even though none of the kids had any drugs, kids should know about the dangers of drugs and the consequences. They saw this as a scared-straight thing.”

It’s unfortunate that the school was exonerated for the raid, which Soling says falls in line with Supreme Court rulings against student rights. Even if Stratford serves as an extreme example, I’m opposed to public officials searching a student’s person and property without due process. Kids deserve equal protection under the law.

“I see children as political prisoners even though they can’t articulate that,” Soling says. “They’re treated that way. The resisters, the ones whose behavior is deemed inappropriate for that environment must be dealt with. If they’re disobedient or not conforming, it must be a mental problem.”

A large portion of Soling’s film also investigates how security cameras make students feel uncomfortable, lending to an environment of distrust between students and adults. He interviews an array of subjects, all of whom say that cameras do much more to identify culprits than to prevent atrocities.

“They just show what already happened, what took place,” Soling says. “There hasn’t been any evidence to show that they are a deterrent, but they’re using them.”

I recently read an interesting Huffington Post story by Ginny Sloan, “Will More Video Surveillance Cameras Make Us Any Safer?” Sloan argues that while surveillance footage provided clues leading to the Boston marathon bombing suspects, “we should recognize that video cameras did not, and cannot, prevent an attack like the Boston marathon bombing.”

Cameras also didn’t prevent the April 20, 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. But the media had a field day when surveillance footage surfaced, using it to reconstruct the series of events.

In light of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, I understand and support a renewed emphasis on school security. Admittedly, I’m not sure what steps should be taken to prevent another school shooting from occurring.  I’m anything but a security expert. But if cameras don’t prevent violence, we need to reassess the purpose of equipping campuses with recording devices. Otherwise, I agree with Soling—cameras do little more than intimidate students, while making school a less inviting place.

Beyond the likeness to prison, Soling feels that America’s public schools deprive individuals of pursuing their passions.

“In order for the schools to function they have to embrace social efficiency,” he says. “Social efficiency means that everyone has to adhere to the same rules of the same system, that there has to be conformity to rules, and the rules are always arbitrarily defined and conceived. There has to be an order and adherence to the system. That must mean that you have a curriculum, which means that the students can never pursue their interests.”

Instead, Soling says, students “must cope with boredom.”

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Soling, and I encourage you to view his film. It’s among the most illuminating documentaries I’ve ever seen. But I disagree that all public schools are destructive. I am aware of the many problems plaguing our system, but beyond all of the noise and commotion, I believe that students still benefit from our finest schools and most dedicated teachers.

Interview transcript:

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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