My next two posts relate to the unspeakable trauma Americans experience as children. The first film concerns the transformation of American schools into virtual prisons. The second discusses the deliberate targeting of children by corporate advertising. In both cases, parents are largely helpless to protect their kids. The scars created carry into adulthood.
The War On Kids
Cevin Soling 2009
The main focus of The War on Kids is the Zero Tolerance approach to school discipline. The goal of Zero Tolerance is to keep guns, drugs and so-called “super-predators” out of public schools by treating all students like criminals.
The film is full of examples of high performing students receiving lengthy suspensions (as long as six months) for bringing so-called “contraband” to school. This includes nail clippers, nail files (“weapons”) and Scope mouthwash, Alka Seltzer, Midol and ibuprofen (“drugs”). The documentary describes one girl being suspended for drawing a soldier with a machine gun. A boy who threatened to throw a spitball at another student was referred to police and charged with felony assault.
The increasing presence of armed police in public schools is especially chilling. Instead of allowing school principals to deal with minor behavior problems, police are called and alleged perpetrators (as young as six) are handcuffed and taken to jail.
Often these arrests violate children’s Fifth Amendment rights, especially when the principal asks the alleged perpetrator to write out a statement and hand it over to the police. This typically happens in the absence of legal representation, parental notification or a Miranda warning that students may be incriminating themselves.
Teaching Learned Helplessness
As part of Zero Tolerance, schools demand absolute conformity in dress, appearance, attitude and behavior. Teachers enforce conformity by constantly bullying and yelling at kids. Curiosity and creativity are systematically discouraged by an educational approach that force feeds kids with information.
Near daily exposure to this brutally oppressive environment is inducing a state of learned helplessness and apathy that persists into adulthood. Students are leaving high school with absolutely no idea how a democratic society functions. In a recent survey, 36% of high school students indicated that all newspapers should seek government approval for the news stories they publish.
Erroneous Information about ADHD
The two parts of the film I have a problem with are one that blames declining achievement on teachers’ unions (an urban myth promoted by neoliberal champions of the charter schools movement) and one in which psychiatrist Peter Breggin and two psychologists assert that ADHD is a fictitious disorder promoted by lazy teachers and drug companies.
Breggin, who is an adult psychiatrist without specialized child psychiatry training, makes a number of assertions that are factually inaccurate. The first relates to the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD). Here Breggin quotes out of context from the American Psychiatric Association’s to make it appear that schools and teachers are deliberately trying to drug bright and energetic children to shut them up. He also makes claims that Ritalin and similar stimulants cause permanent brain damage and lead to drug addiction. These are also urban myths which are totally unsubstantiated by peer reviewed research evidence.
The assertion by one of the psychologists that Britain has banned the use of Ritalin in children is a blatant fabrication. In 2010, UK doctors dispensed Ritalin prescriptions for 661,413 British children.
Although ADHD is a genuine disorder documented by decades of careful peer reviewed research, the real issue is that 1) it’s being over diagnosed in the US compared to other countries and 2) American kids who take Ritalin and similar stimulants aren’t receiving adequate medical monitoring. There’s also an alarming increase in children’s prescriptions for antidepressants and antipsychotics – despite the lack of efficacy or safety research in patients under eighteen.
It would have been far more helpful if the filmmakers had stuck to established facts, rather than focusing on urban myths and half truths.
The Myth of Homework
The documentary features excellent segments at the end on cliques, bullying and the failure of homework to enhance learning.