Mentor (Garden Thieves Pictures, NR)

dvd mentorSupposedly, tolerance and respect for others, including those who are different from you, are core values both of the United States in general and of our school system in particular.

 

 

In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor was a friend of Odysseus charged with the care of Telemachus while his father was off fighting the Trojan War. When Athena visited Telemachus to advise him about the gaggle of suitors intent on marrying his mother, she took the form of Mentor. Today, “mentor” has come to mean a trusted advisor and guide to a younger person.

The town of Mentor, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, was named after this mythological figure. That choice has become unintentionally ironic considering the events highlighted in Alix Lambert’s documentary Mentor. Lambert’s film focuses on an epidemic of teen suicides (five between 2005 and 2010) in this apparently all-American small town that was twice named one of America’s 100 Best Places to Live by CNNMoney.com.

Lambert focuses on two of the suicides while also giving ample screen time to a dissection of the school climate (including extreme and unchecked bullying) that the parents of both students believed played a key role in the death of their children. It’s a good choice because it allows you to get to know the families of the students and understand the particulars of each case, focus that could be lost if she tried to present all five cases in detail.

Sladjana Vidovic was an immigrant from Croatia whose name and accent prevented her from blending into a conformist school environment. Eric Mohat was a skinny kid who struck other kids as gay, making him stand out from the majority mob. Both were targets of extreme bullying, including physical violence, which extended even, in the case of Sladjana, to her funeral. Sladjana’s parents regularly went to school officials to complain and seek assistance, to no avail, while Eric largely kept his troubles to himself, to the point that his parents were largely unaware of what was happening to him. At the end of the day, however, both families had the same result: a dead child and a school system seemingly oblivious to the fact that anything was wrong.

Supposedly, tolerance and respect for others, including those who are different from you, are core values both of the United States in general and of our school system in particular. Sad to say, those fine words are often not honored in practice, and Lambert highlights a prime example. Kids may naturally pick on other kids, but adults are supposed to control the school environment so that all the students are free to learn, and those who might be tempted to viciousness learn to keep their own behavior within acceptable bounds.

The lack of responsibility accepted by Mentor school officials recalls one of the central cases in Lee Hirsch’s 2011 documentary Bully, in which a school system in Sioux City, Iowa, insisted, despite repeated complaints of bullying, that everything was fine until confronted with video of one student being assaulted on a school bus. One father in Mentor suggests that officials are more concerned with protecting the school system’s reputation, and thus keeping property values up, than with acknowledging or actually dealing with problems.

Repeated refusals by school officials to be interviewed (screen cards announcing these declined requests for interviews punctuate the film, just one example of Lambert’s fine grasp of visual storytelling), and the destruction of school records relating to the cases, suggest this diagnosis is correct. Other voices highlight the culture of conformity in a town where the population is almost entirely white and where poverty is almost unknown. Response to the film from some current residents has taken a predictable turn, with complaints that the town and the high school are being given a bad name. The fact that both might deserve that name, or that some sympathy might be spared for young people so tormented they took their own lives, is missing.

There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh

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