An interview with producer and “War on Kids” director Cevin Soling on school bullying
Director and producer Cevin Soling has been involved in a series of documentaries, from “Ikland” to “The War on the War on Drugs” to “The War on Kids,” which explores the authoritarian, prison-like approach to the public school system in America.
Winning “best educational documentary” for the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, “The War on Kids” investigates the very foundation of public schools that often deny the most basic civil rights to youths across the country.
As an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cevin has continued to pay close attention to the nation’s school system and with Pride Month approaching, he hopes to offer some tips to bullied heterosexual and LGBT youths’ parents about how to help prevent further issues.
In an interview with 429Magazine, Soling discussed his current views on the school system, the root of the bullying problem, and gave some advice to those being bullied today.
429Magazine: What first got you interested in improving LGBT students’ lives?
Cevin Soling: My interest is improving the lives of all students. I recognize that certain groups are more susceptible to abuse than others, but I make a point of not breaking things down into sub-entities. The problem with presenting issues that affect many people as though it is solely about one group is that it adversely impacts efforts to seriously address the problem.
Solutions are constructed to merely show marginal improvements for the group that dominates the discussion. For instance, the problem of ineffective schooling is seen predominantly as a problem for low-income communities. Rather than recognize that the whole approach to educating is flawed, resources are devoted towards getting slightly higher test scores in low-income neighborhoods.
Likewise, with LGBT students and bullying, the goal often becomes making things marginally better as opposed to genuinely understanding the source of the problem.
429Mag: What do you think is the root of the problem that should be addressed in order to impact change for bullying among LGBT youth – and all youth, for that matter?
CS: Just about everything written or spoken about bullying is erroneous and willfully so. Bullying is a symptom. There is no such thing as “curing” a symptom. Aspirin will not make your brain tumor go away. The school environment is responsible for bullying—specifically the autocratic structure where students have no power or control over their own lives, compulsory attendance, and forcing children to associate with people they do not like.
All people need to experience some degree of control and the only available space for this in the school structure is by bullying others. This is rudimentary psychology, but is never applied to schools because schools are founded on the notion that children have astonishingly few basic human drives or needs. Not only are their psychological and emotional needs routinely dismissed, but their physical needs as well.
429Mag: Could you tell me a little about your 2009 documentary “War on Kids”?
CS: The film documents the transformation of American public schools into prisons. This is not to say that schools were not always prisons, but rather the current changes (e.g. security camera, locker searches, security officers, zero tolerance policies, subjecting children to pharmaceutical drugs, etc.) are logical progressions of centralized power that naturally tends to totalitarianism.
Most importantly, schools cannot be reformed. This is because the autocratic components define schools. You must have a top-down power structure in order to process hundreds or thousands of students, but that kind of structure poisons everything. Kids learn how to survive in a despotic state, but little else.
429Mag: Did the filming process influence your future responses to student issues? Did you, for example, learn more about LGBT student bullying while creating the documentary?
CS: I did speak with some LGBT students in Columbine who were having a tough time. I did not want the message that schools are destructive places for all students to get lost by focusing on the unfortunate circumstances of specific groups, though.
429Mag: Federally, public schools do not currently protect youths from harassment and bullying for their sexual orientation and gender identity. Are you hoping to offer tips to parents, teachers and the general public to help pressure lawmakers into giving LGBT youths the same federal rights as heterosexual youths and what kind of tips/advice are you hoping to send out there to spread the advice?
CS: There are no federal laws regarding bullying—just state ones. I am definitely not hoping people pressure lawmakers because anti-bully laws are horrible. First, they do not work and that has been shown by numerous studies. Second, they reflect a complete dishonesty about the causes of bullying, and many of them define bullying exclusively as something that exists solely among students. Teachers and faculty are the worst bullies by far, and the oppressive environment is the most significant catalyst.
Anti-bully laws are therefore another weapon to be used against students. For example, one child was suspended for jokingly placing a “kick me” sign on the back of his friend. No bullying was taking place between the students, but here you have faculty adhering to what they perceive is the letter of the law. No thought is involved. That kind of thing just adds more paranoia and neurosis to an already sick environment. In this way, the laws give teachers and administrators even more leeway to bully kids with impunity.
I do not think these kinds of laws help LGBT students or anyone who is being victimized. It is clearly despicable bigotry that sexual orientation is not considered a protected group in all state anti-bully laws, but the laws are a joke. Zero-tolerance policies have repeatedly been shown not to work, but to make things worse. Efforts could be better spent by lobbying to revise these laws.
As far as tips and advice on areas where labor could be better employed, I would suggest strengthening networks and communities to develop educational environments for children that do not involve schools. The well-organized LGBT community should become ever more ambitious and not simply work towards reforming institutions, but create newer and better ones. What better places to focus efforts than by building nurturing environments for education that do not involve hierarchical oppressive structures? There are already a number of successful, diverse examples of these kinds of learning environments that can be used as exemplary models.
429Mag: With so many LGBT youths suffering from mental health issues and/or contemplating suicide, and 51 percent having been verbally harassed at school, do you have any main pieces of advice for the youths being bullied?
CS: Schools are not good places for most children. Too many people have bought into the lie that successful futures are dependent on attending compulsory schools when an education can be attained elsewhere. Top universities accept people from different educational backgrounds, if that is a concern. What is the trade-off for that kind of suffering? Exiting is not a matter of the bullies winning; rather, it is a matter of opting out of an oppressive environment.
429Mag: And how about those who are bullying?
CS: Assuming you mean student-bullies—many bullies are also bullied by other students, so the definition is kind of blurry. Certainly all students are bullied by teachers.
429Mag: Are you involved in any events for Pride Month?
CS: I am involved with a group that actively supports LGBT concerns. We have done some high-profile events and are looking forward to more. I know one of the plans involves a novel means of attempting to secure marriage rights in all states.
429Mag: With your university history in education, what is your main major scruple about the American public school/private School system?
CS: Compulsory environments are by nature demeaning and destructive. Combine that with a top-down hierarchical structure where the population that is forced to be there is powerless and you have a recipe for disaster.
Schools are breeding grounds for all of the behaviors they claim to despise. They rob all joy from learning and manufacture anti-intellectualism because psychologically these pursuits become associated with the oppressive environment.