Documentary offers hope for troubled teens

May 11, 2018
“Paper Tigers” is a documentary about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and how one school and community addressed their effect on its teens.

Belfast — The Midcoast Resilience Project will screen the documentary film “Paper Tigers” (2015, USA) Thursday, May 24, at 6 p.m. at Belfast Free Library, 106 High St.

The film follows six students over the course of a school year at Lincoln Alternative High School, as staff try a new approach to discipline: one based on understanding and treatment, rather than judgment and suspension. Using a combination of vérité and revealing diary-cam footage, “Paper Tigers” is a testament to what the latest developmental science is showing — that just one caring adult can help break the cycle of adversity in a young person’s life.

Considered a last chance before dropping out, many students come to Lincoln with a history of behavioral problems, truancy and substance abuse. In 2010, Principal Jim Sporleder learned about the science of what a rough childhood does to a developing brain — i.e., stressed brains can’t learn. He became convinced that traditional punishments such as suspension were only exacerbating the problems of the students there.

Sporleder invited the staff, and students, to learn about the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which shows that stressful events during childhood — including divorce, domestic violence or living with someone with a mental illness — massively increases the risk of problems in adulthood. Problems like addiction, suicide and even heart disease have their roots in childhood experience.

Suspension became a last resort as the school formed an in-school suspension program, keeping the kids in contact with the staff and caught up with their homework. It also established a health center on campus so students would have ready access to pediatricians and mental health counselors. The biggest challenge for the teachers was to consider the source of students’ behavior.

“The behavior isn’t the kid,” said science teacher Erik Gordon. “The behavior is a symptom of what’s going on in their life.”

Note that this film includes some language used by angry teens that some might find offensive, as well as a brief scene of violence.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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