“Spotlight” Shows Us the Kids Aren’t Alright

We don’t have a child and youth problem in America. We have a profound adult problem. — Marion Wright Edelman

Although the selection of Spotlight as best picture at the Academy Awards last month was seen by many to be a surprise, many child advocates were thrilled by the selection by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because of its focus on the need to protect children in society from evil, which in this case were pedophiles in the Catholic Church.

My mother, who taught both English and creative writing, once explained to me that great art and literature is subversive and challenges society’s norms and orthodoxy. Spotlight succeeds in achieving that standard by demonstrating just how incredibly difficult it was for a small band of journalists at the Boston Globe to take on the Catholic Church, the police, the court system, and an entire community, who simply could not hear or accept mounting evidence that Catholic priests had subjected thousands of children to sexual abuse over the course of decades.

The movie also demonstrates how powerful institutions, even when organizational leadership is made aware of the harm that the organization has been inflicted upon children, will often choose to dismiss, hide, and engage in a major cover-up rather than come clean, accept responsibility, and address the problem. For many, the institution takes on a life of its own, and somehow, becomes more important than the victims. In fact, maybe the most powerful line in the movie was by crusading lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) when he said to reporter Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo), “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The movie also evokes passion and emotion with respect to both the story of sexual abuse of children but also the need for independent, investigative journalism in a democratic society. And, it goes much further than that. As the New York Times editorial board writes, “It’s about the damage done when we genuflect too readily before society’s temples, be they religious or governmental. It’s about the danger of faith that’s truly blind.”

Spotlight exposes a society that is far too believing or credulous, and thereby, deserves its Academy Award. It challenges society and its cherished institutions to the core. That is great art.

Unfortunately, while people are always shocked by these tragedies, quite sadly, institutions run by adults far too often fail our children and chose to cover up tragedies rather than be transparent and open about addressing problems.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the cases of sexual abuse of young boys by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State shocked the nation. As CNN reported, “Officials at Penn State purportedly failed to notify law enforcement after learning about some of these incidents.”

And a few years earlier, in the juvenile court system in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, two judges conspired with private juvenile detention facilities to keep the facilities full in in return for kickbacks. In the courtrooms, the judges evoked “zero tolerance policies” aimed at children and, as author William Ecenbarger describes in Kids for Cash, “several thousand young defendants were needlessly handcuffed, shackled, and summarily dispatched to incarceration that typically lasted between one and three months.” The lives of many of these children were destroyed.

And, these are not isolated incidents. In Florida, the entire nation witnessed the tragic killings of two African-American 17-year-olds, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, by two adults, George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. In both cases, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was used by adults in an attempt to justify attacks upon and the killing of unarmed teenagers.

Our children and youth witness it in their everyday lives as well. For example, low-income kids see it when they go to underfunded schools, watch community resources like parks and recreation facilities close, or travel past a growing number of gated communities that ban children. As Bonita Burton says about such communities:

Today’s cameras, fences, walls and gates do little to create an atmosphere of openness, which is an essential element in a diverse society. When segregation of our living spaces becomes the wallpaper we no longer see, communities become brittle, unable to prevent and shut down the most dangerous behavior.
Our children deserve to grow up in a culture of responsibility that doesn’t stop at the neighborhood gates. As the design of our communities becomes more divided, the “as paranoid as possible” citizens living in fear of those lurking outside of their walls too often overlook the more distressing attitudes within.

Those mindsets cause some adults to look upon children, particularly teens, as the enemy. In a recent incident in a Baltimore high school, a student caught a “school police officer slapping and kicking a teenage youth while a second officer watches.”

Public defender Jenny Egan, who represents juveniles, said the video represents “a vivid example of the criminalization of children and of treating misbehavior like crime.”

Egan adds that when there is “violence at the hands of people who are supposed to be there to protect you, then there is no safe place for our kids, and that is not right.”

Such interactions are far too commonplace and with consequences that can be tragic. A study conducted by Mother Jones last year explains:

. . .over the past five years at least 28 students have been seriously injured, and in one case shot to death, by so-called school resource officers — sworn, uniformed police assigned to provide security on K-12 campuses.

The reports are disturbing and certainly argue for better training of school officers. But again, it goes well beyond that, as it highlights the need to fundamentally change the relationship between adults and children in schools specifically and society more generally.

In some schools, adults even impose a punitive culture upon little children, particularly children of color and children with special needs. The New York Times reported about how the Success Academy Charter School “network’s culture encouraged teachers to make students fear them in order to motivate them.” Former teacher Carly Ginsberg described stories of teachers tearing up papers by kindergartners, a principal humiliated a young child for low test scores, and a teacher causing a girl to vomit because she stumbled over a math problem. According to Ginsberg, “It felt like I was witnessing child abuse. If this were my kindergarten experience, I would be traumatized.”

These policies put some of our most vulnerable children at risk, as charter schools in the Success Academy network suspend children at much higher rates than public schools. And if that doesn’t work, one of the schools decided to create an infamous “got to go” list of students to push out.

As reporter Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News explains, Success Academy uses a “’zero tolerance’ disciplinary policy to suspend, push out, discharge or demote the very pupils who might lower those scores — children with special needs or behavior problems.”

A lawsuit against the Success Academy asserts the network denied students with disability their basic rights. It reads:

Success [Academy Fort Greene] disciplines its students, starting in kindergarten, for behaviors that stem from their disabilities and which they cannot control, with the effect that these students are excluded from education, confined in timeout rooms and other unsuitable settings, and are shamed and humiliated, in many cases compounding the effects of their disabilities. Students are routinely suspended from school and parents are threatened with the possible arrest of their children or with a report to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) if they do not immediately remove their children from school premises.

Yet again, this is not an isolated event. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, charter schools have a higher rate of suspension than non-charter schools (7.8 to 6.7 percent, respectively). And, in its report entitled Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline that was released last week, the UCLA Civil Right Project found suspension rates were higher than 20 percent for both African-American and disabled high school students in 2011–2012. More disturbing, the report found 235 charter schools suspended more than half of their students with disabilities that school year. The report points out:

. . .there is a wealth of research indicating that the frequent use of suspensions is harmful to all students, as it contributes to chronic absenteeism, is correlated with lower achievement, and predicts lower graduation rates, heightened risk for grade retention, delinquent behavior, and costly involvement in the juvenile justice system.

We must end zero tolerance policies and cultures imposed by adults upon children and demand that schools, including charter schools, must always respect the rights of children and be safe environments for all students to learn and thrive.

Unfortunately, as University of Connecticut Professor Preston Green points out, some states and the courts have exempted charter schools from codes of conduct that limit suspensions and protect student due process and hearing rights.

And then there is the ultimate tragedy: a child’s death. As Chairman David Sanders of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities writes, “We can all agree: One death from child abuse or neglect is one too many.

Yet, the Commission, whose 12 members were appointed by the President and Congress and studied child fatalities over a two-year period, found an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 children die from abuse or neglect every year. “Most of the children who die are infants or toddlers,” according to the Commission, and “. . .tens of thousands of children suffer life-threatening injuries from maltreatment each year.”

As adults, we should be both outraged and moved to act. Spotlight helps raise society’s collective consciousness to the enormous consequences when adults abuse children, when adults choose to protect institutions over children, and when adults avert their eyes and, as Walter “Robby” Robinson (played by actor Michael Keaton) says, “suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.”

Our towns, communities, and nation can no longer look the other way. Although children represent just 25 percent of the population, they are 100 percent of our future and they demand our attention and voice on their behalf. Whether in a church, a school, a courtroom, youth sports, and even in their own home, far too many children deserve better than they are getting.

And, we can make it better.

The Children’s Network was created by First Focus in order to better advocate on behalf of our nation’s children.

At First Focus, we have established The Children’s Network — a movement led by individuals, non-profit organizations, and businesses committed to the health, education, and well-being of children in the United States. At its core, we share the vision of making America a better place to be a child and raise a family.

Join us and let’s work together to improve the lives of our nation’s children.