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The War on Kids

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By John W. Whitehead
August 31, 2009

"Education is under siege," states Dr. Henry Giroux, author of Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture's War on Children. "It's under siege by the marketers. It's under siege by the corporations." Most of all, says Giroux, public education is under siege in the sense that it is no longer seen as fundamental to a democracy. Ironically, America's public schools were once considered the hope of freedom and democracy, the place where young people were to be instructed in the principles of freedom so that they could someday effectively participate in the democratic process. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Instead, for the more than 49 million students who are attending elementary and secondary public schools this fall, their time in school will be marked by overreaching zero tolerance policies, heightened security and surveillance and a greater emphasis on conformity and behavior-controlling drugs--all either aimed at or resulting in the destruction of privacy and freedom.

In his award-winning documentary The War on Kids (2009), director Cevin Soling examines the dangers posed to young people today by a public school system that looks upon them as "superpredators" to be controlled and treated like criminals. Two obvious results of this dangerous mindset are the rise in zero tolerance policies and the physical transformation of the schools into quasi-prisons.

Zero tolerance policies were first introduced into the schools after Congress passed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school. Unfortunately, from there a precipitous but insidious slide has taken place, resulting in zero tolerance policies that crack down on firearms to policies that discourage undesirable behavior altogether. These policies are now so subjective as to crack down on spit wads, Tweetie Bird keychains and Certs breath mints--all of which constitute contraband of one kind or another.

"Media hysteria really created this groundswell of support for zero tolerance and folks being scared that it could happen at their school," states Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project. "Now, we have police officers in every school. He's now there to be law enforcement. He's there to lock up kids."

As Soling's insightful film documents, from the moment they walk into school, students today find themselves under constant surveillance: they are photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, x-rayed, sniffed and snooped on. Between metal detectors at the entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways and surveillance cameras in the classrooms and elsewhere, America's schools have come to resemble prison-like complexes. Much of this is an attempt to appease parental fears in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Yet as one student remarks in the film, "They [the surveillance cameras] don't really prevent anything. They just take pictures of it." Indeed, the documentary points out there is no empirical data to show that metal detectors, locker searches, or security cameras have any impact in reducing school violence.

Neither have they managed to reduce drug usage among young people. Yet, ironically, while our nation's schools have become the primary battleground for the so-called war on drugs, they have also become a testing ground for the pharmaceutical industry. "Why is it that the U.S. has six times as many kids on Ritalin as any other country?" asks Dr. Bertram Karon of Michigan State University. "Because this is the most profitable country to sell your drugs." In fact, some 4 million children in the United States are on drugs, accounting for 90% of all Ritalin prescriptions in the world.

Ritalin is often prescribed for what is termed "attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder" (ADHD), a condition that was once labeled hyperactivity. However, the drugs that are prescribed for ADHD are cocaine-like stimulants. And according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the human nervous system cannot differentiate between cocaine, amphetamines and methylphenidate--that is, Ritalin.

Unfortunately, since ADHD hit the mainstream in the 1980s, prescriptions for Ritalin have skyrocketed, aided and abetted by school officials and parents who have relied on it to sedate what are termed hyperactive students in and out of the classroom. As psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin notes in Soling's film, the young people who are being diagnosed and drugged are "often our best and brightest kids, they're our most energetic kids, our most rebellious kids, our most exciting kids--the kids who may someday really transform the world and bring new and better things into the world."

This overdrugging of America's youth has led to deadly consequences. For example, a disturbing number of young school shooters were either on anti-depressants or were withdrawing from anti-depressants. The list of shooters is extensive and ranges from 12-year-old Christopher Pittman who was on Zoloft and withdrawing from Paxil when he killed his paternal grandparents to 17-year-old Eric Harris who was on Luvox when he and his partner Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine.

Laurie A. Couture, author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing, places the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on our educational system. "Our society is built on freedoms and personal liberties, and yet it's like we take our children and we lock them up in a prison for 13 years of their life," said Couture.

We regiment every aspect of their physical body, their emotions, their social contacts, and most importantly, their minds--what they can and can't learn and how they will learn it. And then when they're 18 years old, and we open the key and we release them into society, suddenly they're now supposed to know how to think for themselves and be self-starting, innovative, creative, imaginative individuals who are supposed to take part in a democratic process. It's impossible. It would be like sending the kids over to a fascist nation for 13 years and having them come back and explain what democracy is all about. And yet that's what we do each and every generation.

The unfortunate fact is that the schools are failing our children. However, the problem goes even deeper. Children are in greater physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual danger now than at any other time during the life of this nation, and the threat is coming from all sides--from dysfunctional families that fail to nurture children, from religious institutions lacking in moral leadership, from communications technology that has contributed to an insulated and isolated society, from an onslaught of entertainment media that pacifies young people, and from a corporate culture that views young people as the means to a greater profit margin.

What can be done? To start with, parents have a duty to become intimately involved in their children's education and vocally protest when they see their children being mistreated by school officials. But first, parents need to become educated on what's happening in the public school compounds. An excellent place to start is Cevin Soling's exceptional documentary, The War on Kids, which is available at www.thewaronkids.com.

As someone once said, "The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next." If this theorem holds true, we face a frightening future.

This commentary is available online at www.rutherford.org

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