Kids with Disabilities Pay a Steeper Price in School Than We Ever Knew
The new documentary film “The Kids We Lose” is a sobering examination of how American schools wind up funneling children with ADHD and disabilities into the criminal justice system.
Each year, more than 100,000 American schoolchildren are subject to corporal punishment. Another 120,000 are physically restrained or locked in seclusion. Millions are suspended or expelled. Many — if not most — of these children have one or more disabilities.
The Kids We Lose — a film developed and executive produced by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., founder of the non-profit organization Lives in the Balance and author of The Explosive Child — does more than put faces to these numbers. The 90-minute documentary outlines how these traumatizing tactics, currently proliferating in U.S. schools, are causing harm that reverberates long after the incidents. By punishing children with disabilities for behaviors they can’t control, the film warns, we’re doing more than disrupting their education. We’re pushing them from school to prison.
The film tells nine stories of children, adolescents, and young adults, all of whom have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), autism, a learning disability, or another emotional or behavioral disorder. A tenth story, narrated by Dylan, an ADHD adult, weaves the threads together. Reflecting on his life, Dylan recalls how his behavior was misunderstood, his needs ignored, and his life eventually thrown into chaos. Returning repeatedly to Dylan’s story demonstrates that punitive disciplinary tactics are rarely isolated incidents, and that they can snowball in alarming ways.
The story of Lucas, a preschooler who is shown lashing out when he becomes overwhelmed, leads in to the story of Eric, a preteen with autism who — in a scene that is sickening to watch — recounts having his arm broken by a teacher while being shoved into a secluded room during a meltdown. Each child’s encounters with unnecessary, worsening violence culminates in the film’s final story — that of Drodriguez, now an adult with learning disabilities. His repeated punishments and clashes with authority figures in school discouraged him from going to school at all, his mother reports. Soon after, he was convicted of participating in an armed robbery and given a lengthy prison sentence. His mother hasn’t been able to visit him for two years.
Though the film draws on lots of studies and statistics, it maintains its human element, presenting each subject as more than a list of diagnoses and misbehaviors. Elementary schooler Tiana, for instance, is first seen sullenly refusing to read flashcards her frustrated mom waves in her face. Later, however, she’s shown to be thoughtful and funny, quietly explaining that when she walked out of school — for which she was harshly punished — she was just “taking a break,” with every intention to return.
Each expert interviewed in the film is listed only by their title — “ACLU advocacy coordinator” or “preschool teacher” — rather than by their name. The decision to anonymize these professionals is an odd one, and detracts slightly from the film’s authoritative message. Greene himself appears, eloquently explaining why many teachers are unprepared to handle children with special needs. But he’s credited only as “child psychologist,” leaving anyone who recognizes him to wonder why director Lisa Wolfinger separated his face from his name (and his well-known work in helping families manage challenging behaviors).
The film briefly touches on solutions to the problems it articulates, the most basic of which are increased funding and stronger supports for children with disabilities. This decision — combined with the heartbreaking conclusions of the characters’ stories — forces viewers to confront the harm that’s being done in America’s schools. The Kids We Lose calls attention to a long-ignored problem, and puts the onus on all of us to dismantle and reassemble a broken system.
This film is not yet in distribution. You can watch it in streaming format on Maine Public Television, beginning in late March, or by attending or hosting a screening.