YARMOUTH — When the Yarmouth Alumni Association commissioned a group of high school students to spend the summer of 2012 producing a film in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Yarmouth High School, they were so pleased with the finished product that they decided to fund another student film the following year.
This time, they would allow the students to choose the subject matter. They thought they might get a history of the Yarmouth ski team, or a feature on the school’s concert band.
Instead, they got a meditation on school security in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
“I think I was both excited and nervous,” association President Brit Vitalius said. “We were expecting fluff, and we were perfectly content with fluff. But it really went above and beyond what we were expecting. We’re so ecstatic and proud to be involved with it.”
“Keeping Out the Bad Guys,” which features interviews with more than 15 Yarmouth students, educators, alumni, residents and journalists, examines the history of school violence in the U.S., and the role of media in the public reaction to those attacks – all in the span of a 10-minute documentary.
The movie was produced during the summer and fall by seniors Amelia French and Ihila Lesnikova, and juniors Mary Coyne and Nate Gallagher. Filmmaker Kendall Harnett, a Yarmouth resident, supplied equipment and served as a guide and mentor, as he did on the 50th anniversary film project.
“The design of the film, from the beginning, was to get people to question how many civil liberties were prepared to lose in order to feel more secure,” Harnett said. “The belief in security may be more important than actual security. So the point of the film was to create an atmosphere of discussion, to see whether we react (to threats) in a pragmatic way or an exaggerated, unhelpful way.”
The film was originally titled “Fear Itself,” a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address. It doesn’t attempt to solve the problems of school safety. Rather, it combines interviews with a variety of media (cable TV news reports, horror film clips, Cold War public service announcements) to explore themes of fear and security in modern American culture, and in particular in comfortable, suburban enclaves.
“We addressed the idea of living in a bubble,” French said. “Almost every person we interviewed, we asked, ‘Do you think school violence can happen anywhere?’ And they’d say, ‘Yes.’ And eventually, we would ask, ‘Do you think it could happen in Yarmouth?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, not really.’ So we definitely thought it was important to address the bubble syndrome because, honestly, Newtown is incredibly similar to Yarmouth.”
The film uses the addition of a variety of new safety measures at Yarmouth High School as a jumping-off point. Last summer, buzzer and keypad systems were installed at the school’s entrances, and outdoor security cameras were placed in the front and rear of the school, and on the turf field. All staff and visitors are now required to wear ID badges.
“It was totally as a result of Newtown,” Principal Ted Hall said. “It caused everybody to question what they’re doing. I think Newtown personalized it for a lot of suburban school districts in a way that some of the other things had not done. It kind of exposed the vulnerability of schools all over the country.
“This is very tricky stuff,” Hall continued. “You have to be careful not to just assume the system is going to work. But you don’t want to make it so Draconian that nobody can even enter the place. You want it to be a school, not a prison.”
The student filmmakers, some of whom plan to pursue film studies in college, all said they enjoyed the opportunity to shape a project from the ground up, collaborate with peers and make new friends.
“It’s so refreshing how inquisitive and vibrant and hardworking these kids are,” Harnett said. “These are really spirited kids, and I love to see that. It restored my faith in many things.”
The film was screened for the Alumni Association and school administrators in late December. The reaction was exceedingly positive, the filmmakers said, and no edits were requested.
“When you have a controversial topic like that, looking at our own school and our administrators in a critical light, it can be tricky,” Lesnikova, who edited the film, said. “But they really enjoyed it.”
Hall said he plans to show the film to the student body this month, and then have students discuss it in small groups. Then he plans to screen it for parents, to get them involved in the discussion.
“The most important part of the film is that it stimulates a thought process and ideas, because there’s no right answer,” French said.
“But we have to face the truth that this is part of our culture now. This is part of our life. This is something we have to worry about, even though it’s something a lot of people don’t want to think about,” she said. “But we have to, because you’re seeing innocent people get hurt. We want to encourage people to think and strive to find some kind of solution.”
Yarmouth High School students Ihila Lesnikova, left, Amelia French, Mary Coyne and Nate Gallagher produced the documentary film “Keeping Out the Bad Guys: A Short Film on Fear and the Safety of Our Schools.”