wcakDan Habib, filmmaker in residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, has personally seen the struggle children with disabilities can face within the public school system. His son, Samuel, has cerebral palsy, and is the subject of Habib’s first documentary, Including Samuel, which explores the educational and social inclusion of kids with disabilities.

Now, in his second documentary, Habib investigates the place of children with emotional/behavioral disabilities (EBD) within our educational system as well as society in Who Cares About Kelsey?. The documentary follows New Hampshire teen Kelsey Carroll, whose one goal is to graduate high school despite having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a past that includes homelessness, self-mutilation, failing grades and sexual abuse. Along with Kelsey’s personal life, Who Cares About Kelsey? also focuses on positive education reforms that help to empower EBD youth.

Counseling Today spoke with Habib about the filming experience and the role that counselors can play in helping students with EBD to find a place in the school system.

 Who Cares About Kelsey? is airing on public television channels nationwide throughout National Mental Health Awareness Week (Oct. 6-12). You can find a list of broadcast dates and channels here

How did you come up with the idea for this documentary?

I’ve personally screened and discussed my first film Including Samuel more than 400 times in the past four years since the film came out. Including Samuel explores the educational and social inclusion of kids with disabilities and focuses on my own son Samuel, who has cerebral palsy. At almost every event, someone asked a variation on this question: “What about kids with emotional or behavioral disabilities? Can they be fully included like Samuel?”

As I researched the topic, I found alarming statistics that motivated me to take on this film project.  Over two million young people in the United States have an EBD.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that students with EBD:

  • Have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 40 percent of students with EBD graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent.
  • Are three times as likely as other students to be arrested before leaving school.
  • Are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to live in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center, or on the street after leaving school.

Those are awful outcomes, and I wanted to create a film project that – like Including Samuel – could be a catalyst for progressive educational reform.  I set out to create a project that focused on the voices of youth, families and educators to shows innovative educational approaches that help these students to succeed – while improving the overall school culture and climate.

 Describe the filming process:

The first step in creating a documentary is to find the most powerful subject for the film. I was fortunate to find a New Hampshire school just one hour from my home that has become a national model for supporting and including students with EBD. Somersworth High School implemented the evidence-based framework called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in 2006. For those students who were at greatest risk of dropping out of school, Somersworth implemented a youth-led planning model called RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural Supports, Education, & Work).  The results were dramatic: in four years, Somersworth reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent, and behavior problems were reduced by 65 percent.

I asked Principal Sharon Lampros if I could spend a year documenting life at SHS, and she bravely opened up her high school to my camera and me. I spent the spring of 2009 getting to know the students and staff as well as documenting the school culture and climate.

Kathy Francoeur was the school’s crisis intervention counselor (she is currently pursuing her masters in education in school counseling) and in the fall of 2009 she introduced me to many teens that were struggling with emotional/behavioral disabilities ­­- most were at risk of dropping out of school. 

When I met Kelsey Carroll, I knew Kathy could stop making introductions. When Kelsey entered Somersworth High School, she was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. She had a diagnosis of ADHD and carried the emotional scars of homelessness and abuse, as well as the actual scars of repeated self-mutilation. As a freshman, she didn’t earn a single academic credit and was suspended for dealing drugs.

During our first interview, Kelsey was incredibly open about her struggles past and present.  She was brash and funny. She told me about bouts of self-mutilation, her mother’s substance abuse and her pride at being a cheerleading captain. Kelsey agreed to let me film her in school, at home and in the community, and she was able to largely ignore the camera (a must for the subject of a documentary film).

From the beginning, I told Kelsey that she was a collaborator, not just a ‘subject’ of this process. At any time, she could tell me to turn off my camera (she used that prerogative a number of times). She watched many rough cuts of the film and suggested valuable edits.

Who Cares About Kelsey? follows Kelsey through the ups and downs of her senior year, and shows what successful educational approaches look like on the ground, in a real school.  And it shows educational reform through the eyes of a student, from the inside looking out.

 What surprised you the most while you were filming?

I continue to be surprised by how many schools still implement harsh ‘zero tolerance’ style disciplinary approaches to control behavior despite zero evidence that these approaches are effective. In fact, studies show that students with EBD typically do not respond well to traditional discipline policies and educational programs, and that these harsh approaches further reinforce the characteristics of EBD (anxiety, depression, low self-worth, aggression), which leads to cycles of discipline referrals.

By focusing solely on punishment, zero-tolerance neglects to examine the root causes of problem behavior. Rather than increasing school safety, zero-tolerance often leads to increased suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students with disabilities.

The evidence shows that zero tolerance policies don’t improve behavior or student outcomes, but they do send an awful lot of kids into the juvenile justice system.  That should not be our society’s goal.

Can you describe the evidence-based intervention program that the documentary is based around?

The greatest strength in Kelsey’s support network is her RENEW team. RENEW is a structured school-to-career transition planning and individualized wraparound process for youth with emotional and behavioral challenges. Developed in 1996 by staff at the Institute on Disability (IOD), RENEW is being provided by schools, community mental health centers, community-based providers and IOD staff members to youth. The model focuses on supporting each youth to design and pursue a plan for the transition from school to adult life. RENEW has substantially increased the high school completion, employment and post-secondary education participation rates among youth with EBD.

Through RENEW, Kelsey works with her mentor, Somersworth High School crisis intervention coordinator Kathy Francoeur, to assemble a team of trusted adults that meets with her weekly. She tells them her dreams, her fears, her likes and dislikes as they furiously record everything on poster paper taped to the walls.

In the film, Kathy reaches out to Kelsey in times of academic and personal crisis with empathy and practical guidance, always reminding Kelsey of the benefits of finding out what she wants and who she is beyond her past, her family and her relationships.

While interacting with the individuals around her, we can see how easily Kelsey could fall into what she describes as “family patterns”—early parenthood, dropping out, substance abuse, limited life options.  It is the team of educators at Somersworth who give Kelsey the chance to define a role for herself.  Who Cares About Kelsey? shows what she does with that chance.

What can counselors take away from this documentary?

 Although a school may or may not choose to implement RENEW, the key features of this approach are worth replicating:

  • Self Determination
  • Personal Futures Planning
  • Creative and Individualized School-to-Career Planning
  • Strengths-based Approach
  • Unconditional Care
  • Building Family and other Natural and Community Supports
  • Wraparound
  • Systemic Support and Consultation

 Why is it important for counselors and other mental health professionals watch this documentary?

 Providing a quality education and support network is not easy, so films about education strive to be complex and balanced – like any good documentary journalism.  People tell me that my films don’t sugarcoat the issues, and that the content is real and raw.  Waiting for Superman was an engaging film but its message boiled down to “Unions Bad. Charter Schools Good.”  I think that’s a vast oversimplification of the challenges in education.

I don’t make films that prescribe easy solutions, because there are none. Although Kelsey’s story is quite far-reaching, I still couldn’t capture all the issues I wanted to address in one film, which is why I made ten mini-films that look at different but related subjects and can be watched for free on our website.

Do you think enough is being done for kids with emotional and behavioral issues within the school setting?

 No, I think we have a long way to go before kids with EBD are fully supported and included in our schools and communities.  We have a key statistics page that I think makes a compelling case that we as a society are NOT doing enough.

 What do you think needs to be done to make sure students, like the ones featured in your documentary, don’t slip through the cracks?

It’s critical that the general public understands what most school counselors already know; behavior is a form of communication. My hope is that Who Cares About Kelsey? will make viewers reconsider the “problem kids” in their own high schools and spark new conversations about empowering — not overpowering — youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

What can counselors and school counselors do?

 School counselors can push for positive, rather than punitive approaches to disciplinary policies and efforts to improve school climate and culture.  We have just launched a take action campaign as part of the film’s outreach called I Care By (icareby.org). School counselors can use this website as a resource to provide students, families, educators and policy makers with simple but effective actions to support students with emotional and behavioral challenges.  As an example, we’ve made the RENEW youth-directed planning portfolio available for free download in the ‘student’ section of the site.

Additional thoughts:

 This film is not a fairy tale — Kelsey still has challenges and obstacles. But by sharing her life story, she has already made a dramatic impact on the way tens of thousands of people view hidden disabilities like ADHD and other mental health disorders.

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.