The documentary The Bad Kids begins as a probation officer follows up on a young man named Joseph McGee.
McGee tells the officer that his father is currently serving time in prison, and that he’s having problems showing up to school. Soon, his mother—sitting across from McGee and the officer—begins sobbing and says she’s done everything she can—including taking away his bedroom door so she can keep a better eye on him.
The probation officer asks McGee what he wants out of life. He’s then shown enrolling in Yucca Valley’s Black Rock High School—the subject of this powerful film by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.
During a recent phone interview, Black Rock’s principal, Vonda Viland, described the kids who come to Black Rock High School, an alternative school that’s part of the state’s Continuation Education program.
“Ninety percent of our students live below the poverty level,” Viland said. “They are the students who will not be able to graduate at a traditional high school, and they are behind on credits for one reason or another. Often, it’s family issues, attendance issues, discipline problems or they’re struggling with the work. Any students who cannot graduate from a traditional high school are the ones we take.”
Viland said the students, and not the learning materials, come first at Black Rock.
“We really work hard with the child before we get to the curriculum,” Viland said. “The curriculum is important, of course, but the child and their issues are more important.”
The Bad Kids won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. During a recent phone interview, Pepe explained what interested him in Black Rock High School.
“My partner, Keith Fulton, and I had been doing a number of short online documentaries for different foundations about public education, and we knew the Mojave Desert from our own trips out there from Los Angeles and thought, ‘We should do something out here,’” Pepe said. “… We have a contact at the Morongo Unified School District who we would call anytime we would get a commission to do a project. She would take us around to different schools in the Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley area and introduce us to different teachers, and we did a couple of different projects in that district. One of the times, we were on a research trip and she said, ‘I have this school I want to show you. It doesn’t fit any of the criteria you were looking for, but you have to see this place. It’s one of the most special places in our district, and it’s something we’re really proud of: This is the high school that’s for the kids on the verge of dropping out.’
“We were initially apprehensive about it at first. She drove us to Black Rock, and we walked through the doors. Instantly, our preconceived notions of ‘bad kids’ went out the window.”
The film’s undeniable hero is Principal Viland. She’s shown waking up at 3 a.m., exercising and then going to the school to prepare for her day. After work each day, she takes a short nap—and goes on a five-mile hike. You may wonder: How does she have time to sleep?
“I asked her that question, and the answer was, ‘Not much,’” Pepe said. “She’s one of those high-energy people who kind of thrives on being engaged in something at all times.”
Of course, working at Black Rock can take an emotional toll.
“I have a rule with my husband when I get home of no talking to me for 20 minutes,” Viland said. “I’m so overwhelmed and emotional. Lou and Keith said that my job is triage, going from one crisis to the next crisis to do what I can to help. By the end of the day, the teachers and I are emotionally and spiritually drained.”
The film tells the stories of some of the students—and given all of the tears and frustration, it seems like everyone at Black Rock is engaged in an uphill battle.
“I think you actually feel the opposite when you’re at Black Rock High School,” Pepe said. “You meet Principal Viland, and you meet the staff, and you actually have an incredible sense of hope. You see how much that staff works to help kids deal with more than just school work. … You think, ‘Every kid here has a fighting chance.’ Then there would be days where you’re like, ‘Oh no, that problem—how can a 16- or 17-year-old cope with that problem?’ Those were the rough days. The teachers at Black Rock deal with that on a daily basis.”
Viland told me that before she took my call, she was dealing with a student in her office.
“Earlier, I had a student who started out this morning so good and had a little bit of an emotional uproar, and we had to talk it through. It really is minute to minute,” she said. “The thing that’s amazing about these kids is that even while they’re resilient, life keeps throwing them road blocks, and they keep jumping over them and just need for us to be their cheerleaders to get over the next hurdle.”
There were moments when Pepe and Fulton had difficulty continuing to film. At one point, the filmmakers are at McGee’s home while his mother is fighting with her boyfriend. McGee and his younger sibling stay put in a bedroom—trying to just ride it out.
“My partner and I had a mantra that we would say to each other for our filming. It was: ‘Embrace the awkward,’” Pepe said. “That stuff is difficult, because you, as a human being, want to make a difference, but you, as a documentarian, are there as an observer and a witness. That stuff is rough, but it’s also real life.”
Viland said the relationships between her staff and the students don’t necessarily end when they graduate.
“We work really closely with the community college out here, Copper Mountain College,” Viland said. “The majority of our kids transfer out there, which is nice, because they can come back and get help with homework, or if something happens in their life, we help them. As soon as they graduate, we don’t just send them on their way. We have about 10-15 percent who will go on to the military, and a small percentage who will enter the workforce. But mostly, we try to get them to go to the community college. We also have some that will get into cosmetology or go into the art institute.”
Viland said she’s inspired by some of her former students.
“I just got a text from a girl who just finished up her veterinary assistance program and was letting me know she graduated,” she said. “After the documentary (came out) and the trailer went up on Facebook, I’ve gotten all sorts of Facebook posts from kids saying, ‘Hey Ms. V, I want to let you know I’m principal at an elementary school,’ or, ‘Hey Ms. V, I wanted to let you know I’m head of a company.’ It’s been really rewarding.”
Pepe said he’s been thrilled by the response the documentary has received.
“People get very emotional about the movie, which Keith and I are very proud of,” Pepe said. “We intentionally made a film that’s not a talking-heads educational film, but an observational film that plays out dramatically. I love it when I hear the sniffles at certain scenes, because I know people are connecting to the story and characters. The film usually has a really strong impact on people who are teachers—anybody who’s had a connection with young people and making better lives for themselves. We’ve also shown it to audiences of high school students, and those screenings are also really exciting. A lot of students see themselves in the characters in the film and are kind of overwhelmed, knowing they aren’t alone in the struggles they face in life.”
For more information, visit www.thebadkidsmovie.com. Below: Black Rock student Joseph McGee.