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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

“Who Cares About Kelsey?” A Must See Documentary about Emotional-Behavioral Disability

Documentary filmmaker Dan Habib recently released a new film about a student with Emotional-Behavioral Disability (EBD) and the evidence-based practices that help her achieve a successful transition from high school to adulthood.   The documentary Who Cares About Kelsey? examines the serious challenges and surprising triumphs as one student fights against the odds.

Mr. Habib’s previous film, Including Samuel, portrayed his own family’s efforts to include their son in every aspect of family and community life.  He has also directed nine mini-films on a variety of educational practices with positive and negative outcomes.  I asked Mr. Habib about his documentaries and the message he hopes to convey.

Karen Wang: What led you to choose Kelsey as the subject for your film?

IOD PR Headshots 09052012

Filmmaker Dan Habib

Dan Habib: I began the process of making this film by pursuing several central questions: What does it look like when kids with emotional/behavioral disabilities are well supported and included in school? Can an emotional or behavioral disability grow out of traumatic events of childhood? Can school discipline be administered in a way that is positive and not punitive?

Kelsey was a perfect subject for the film in part because she is funny, honest, comfortable in front of the camera and willing to share very difficult details of her life.

When she entered Somersworth (NH) High School as a freshman, Kelsey was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. She has a diagnosis of ADHD and carried the emotional scars of homelessness and substance abuse, as well as the actual scars of repeated self-mutilation. Throughout middle school and her early high school years, Kelsey was volatile, disruptive and, by her own admission, “not a nice person” to be around. As a freshman, she didn’t earn a single academic credit and was suspended for dealing drugs.

movie posterWho 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. That’s become increasingly important to me, to make films from a youth-eye view, from the inside looking out.

KW: It seems like this film is a natural “sequel” to your 2009 documentary, Including Samuel, because it involves the transition from childhood into adulthood.  Do you consider Who Cares about Kelsey? to be a follow-up to the issues of inclusion that you previously explored, or something completely different?

DH: I’ve personally screened and discussed Including Samuel more than 400 times in the past four years since the film came out. 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?’ The journalist part of my brain thought, ‘If this question keeps coming up, there must be an important story to be told through a film.’ I did some research and read some alarming statistics that motivated me to take on this 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.

I think the commonality for all my films to date is that they capture the stories of kids who often fall through the cracks in our schools and statistically have awful post-school outcomes. I want to do everything I can to shine a spotlight on what’s working for these kids to prepare them for college and careers.

KW: Who Cares About Kelsey? contrasts the way Kelsey’s school managed her disability during her freshman and sophomore years with the way her team supported her during her junior and senior years.  Could you explain more about these educational practices?

DH: Schools can easily and wrongly dismiss kids with EBD as “problem kids,” and many schools rely heavily on ‘zero tolerance’ type policies to control behavior. In researching for this project, I was stunned to find that there is no evidence to support zero tolerance policies. 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.
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.

The Kelsey film and mini-films capture alternatives to zero-tolerance policies that work. Rather than cling to ineffectual strategies, many schools around the country are embracing evidence-based practices that help all students achieve success in school. The most prominent practices captured in Who Cares About Kelsey? are Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and the youth-directed planning process Kelsey participates in called RENEW.

KW: I’m the mother of a child who has been “in the system” since he was one year old, so I was interested in seeing how Kelsey’s school team supported her in the film.  What were the strengths and shortcomings that you perceived in Kelsey’s support network?

DH: The greatest strength in Kelsey’s support network is her RENEW team. During RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural supports, Education, and Work), Kelsey works with her mentor, Somersworth High School crisis intervention counselor 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. They work together to figure out what steps she can take to achieve her dreams of becoming “not just another Carroll…another screw up. ”

Instead of hiding the scars from cutting herself, Kelsey shows off a new tattoo. When her guidance counselor, Kathy, comments on the beautiful shading, she could well be talking about the new Kelsey—a young woman who is still at risk but is facing her life with new self-awareness, hope, and control.  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.

KW: Which scene was the hardest for you to film?

DH: There were scenes in the film where Kelsey was emotionally distraught after having a conflict with a teacher and again after her boyfriend broke up with her. Filming someone as they are weeping can feel intrusive, but Kelsey and I had built up a lot of trust at this point, and she knew that I had to tell the story in an unvarnished way – which included the lowest points of her life as well as the high points.

KW: What type of message do you hope the audience will carry away from the film?

DH:  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. I’ve done a few dozen screenings around the country to date, and based on the evaluations, it’s having exactly the effect I had hoped. More than 80% of attendees indicated that they are more likely to recognize the roles that schools and communities can play in supporting students with EBD.

KW: Do you still keep in touch with Kelsey?  How is she doing now?

DH: We stay in touch almost daily (mostly by text!). Kelsey had never gone on a plane until her senior year in high school. Now she is traveling all over the country co-presenting with me at film screenings and also about RENEW. She can stand up in front of 1000 people without being nervous – she’s an amazing public speaker. She has also completed a financial literacy course and purchased a new car, she took one term of college and is now doing firefighter training and hopes to make that her career. This is not a fairy tale – she 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.

Who Cares About Kelsey? is airing on public television stations across the country, so check your local station’s schedule.  For more information about the film visit http://www.whocaresaboutkelsey.com

Karen Wang

Written on October 2, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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