By Shelby Clark Petkus
Cevin Soling, writer and director of the acclaimed documentary on the failures of the public school system in the United States called "The War On Kids," recently spoke with BTL. He discussed the unsettling truths he found out about LGBT youth in the American public school system, what adults can do about the bullying epidemic and why pulling bullied students out of school might be the best thing for them.
Writer, filmmaker, musician, artist and philosopher, Cevin (pronounced Kevin) Soling, launched into the public consciousness with the award-winning 2009 documentary, "The War on Kids." Earlier in his career, the New York based Renaissance-man attended University of Michigan and wrote and directed short animated films, like "Boris the Dog," that made their way onto MTV, BBC and other networks. He also served as executive producer on the 1998 film "Relax, It's Just Sex" which focused on the lives of a group of gay, lesbian and straight individuals as they dealt with violence, affairs and each other.
Soling transitioned into documentaries with his film "The War on The War on Drugs," which won best experimental feature film at the 2005 New York Independent Film and Video Festival. Following the documentary, Soling began covering the stories of children and adolescents who dealt with bullying in schools he called "effectively prisons." Out of this coverage came "The War on Kids," which won numerous awards and landed Soling in the public eye.
During the filming process, Soling realized that the educational system itself was responsible for much of the physical and emotional harm students of all orientations face. "There were mixed feelings [when working on the film]," Soling said. "It was great being around kids and having them appreciate that someone, for the first time in many of their lives, was there to respectfully listen and accurately report their deeply considered feelings. At the same time, I was helping them articulate and give context to their suffering. After several years of working on the film, I had the epiphany that the problems youth endure in school were directly because of the way schools are designed, and that is something that cannot be reformed."
In the process of speaking with so many adolescents, Soling encountered many stories of LGBT kids. "Because I went all over the country, the experiences reported varied in response to the communities," notes Soling. "There was one boy I remember talking to in Colorado who was extremely artistic and sensitive and he was enduring so much pain. My crew kept turning to me while I was talking to him in ways they never did during any other interview. Finally, the cameraman blurted out, 'If only you were in Brooklyn, you would not be having these problems!' I am not saying that everywhere in Brooklyn is supportive, but my crew had positive experiences in that regard. It actually made him [the student] feel much better hearing and knowing that there are places where he would be appreciated for his gifts. That moment really stuck with me because it seemed like a great burden had been lifted and he would not always have to suppress all facets of his identity."
When asked if the "It Gets Better" project resonated with that story, or with any changes in bullying with the advent of more LGBT-acceptance in popular culture, Soling responds with mixed feelings, "The positive side that I definitely witnessed is that many in the LGBT community rightly enjoy the attention and support. I appreciate the element of hope and the fact that there is truth behind it – for many, things do get better. What I don't like is that there is an implicit message that, because things get better and people are being psychologically conditioned to understand that, dealing with misery and the real sources becomes less of a priority."
Despite the complicated tension LGBT kids find with being victimized by homophobic peers and adults, Soling still found tension and bullying within the LGBT student community. "There was a recent study – an honest one, which is profoundly rare among people who profess to study bullying in school – that showed that the concept of 'bully' and 'victim' is actually very gray because many people who bully are also bullied," said Soling. "People need to understand why children bully in school in the first place, and this is where you will have a very hard time finding any honest answers… When you have a structure where children are deprived of virtually all rights and have no voice and are forced to be there, you have an environment that is a catalyst for bullying. All people need to feel some sense of power and control over their lives and when they are deprived of that they bully others to feel some sense of power."
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 51percent of LGBT youth have been verbally harassed at school, while 48 percent say they feel excluded by their peers and 17 percent have reported being physically attacked at school. There are currently no federal protections for children from bullying or harassment for their sexual orientations or gender identity in American public schools.
Despite these findings, Soling finds legal action a poor solution to the issue of bullying in schools, particularly of LGBT students. "Anti-bully laws are horrible," the director states. "First, they do not work, and that has been show 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. Anti-bully laws become yet 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.
"Naturally, this is not the answer anyone wants to hear. People want a quick fix to the problem, and there are no shortages of entities that have cropped up that are happy to take schools' money to stage anti-bully intervention programs — even though studies have shown that they do not work, and that they may even increase incidents of bullying. There is absolutely no political will whatsoever to deal with the problem by addressing the root cause, which would require the abolition of the autocratic model of schooling. Barring that, no should expect to see any meaningful changes."
Soling still advises adults on how they can help the LGBTQA children in their lives, though it may come in a more revolutionary package. "Parents should know that if their kids are not being bullied for being LGBT, they will be bullied for some other reason if their children are forced to remain in that environment; it will be just as bad. Ending the repugnant marginalization of LGBT students will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on bullying in general," Soling argues.
"The most important thing is to understand that the autocratic structure of compulsory schools is the greatest catalyst for bullying and that teachers and faculty are the worst bullies by far," he said. " They have an obscene degree of power over students, which is, by its nature, abusive even if they have the best intentions. The advice for LGBT students who are suffering in school is, if it is at all possible, find educational opportunities other than a compulsory school environment. Problematic home life is a whole other challenge. The best thing is always to work on building communities of support and to try to find ways, where possible, to effectively communicate with people who are cruel and abusive."
Soling emphatically affirms that, while change in schools may seem distant, he'll cover bullying further, especially with the LGBT community: "This is an issue that is very important to me, and there are only a handful of other voices who have the will or understanding to speak honestly about this concern."