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Film to Play in New London About a Troubled Student Who Beat the Odds

  • Kelsey Carroll near a glass door at Somersworth, NH, High School.  Kelsey is featured in the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" by Producer/Director Dan Habib. (Dan Habib photograph)

    Kelsey Carroll near a glass door at Somersworth, NH, High School. Kelsey is featured in the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" by Producer/Director Dan Habib. (Dan Habib photograph)

  • Dan Habib is producer and director of the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" (Courtesy photograph)

    Dan Habib is producer and director of the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" (Courtesy photograph)

  • Kelsey Carroll near a glass door at Somersworth, NH, High School.  Kelsey is featured in the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" by Producer/Director Dan Habib. (Dan Habib photograph)
  • Dan Habib is producer and director of the film "Who Cares About Kelsey?" (Courtesy photograph)

Back when she was forced to repeat her sophomore year at Somersworth (N.H.) High School, Kelsey Carroll’s vision of her future did not include going to college. Coming from a childhood that included bouts of homelessness, Carroll’s adolescence was pockmarked with emotional distress as she turned to drug abuse and self-mutilation.

It took the intervention of several concerned teachers and administrators for Carroll to design a roadmap for her future that would include high school graduation. That process resulted in Carroll graduating from Somersworth in 2010, and was captured by filmmaker Dan Habib for the documentary Who Cares About Kelsey?, which will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday in a free screening at Colby-Sawyer College in New London.

Now in her first semester studying psychology at Hesser College in Portsmouth, Carroll, 22, wants to pursue a career as a school guidance counselor, and influence other students.

“I just … want another student that is like me to know that they have someone they can connect with and be behind them every step of the way if they’re struggling,” said Carroll, who will attend Monday night’s screening with Habib and share her experience of completing high school and continuing her education against all odds. To date, Carroll and Habib have presented Who Cares About Kelsey? to 5,000 people across New Hampshire, and the film has screened at film festivals across the country.

At Somersworth, Carroll fell into the category of students with emotional and behavioral problems. As Habib traveled the country promoting his documentary Including Samuel, he was often approached by audience members who encouraged him to look into the struggles of young adults with emotional and behavioral issues, which could include ADHD, autism, schizophrenia and a host of other conditions. He found that nationwide, only 40 percent of these students graduate from high school, and 55 percent of the time they’re not included in general education classrooms. They’re also at greater risk for homelessness and getting involved in criminal activities than other students with disabilities.

“It just astounded me that the outcomes were so poor for so many kids,” said Habib, a former Concord Monitor photo editor who is filmmaker-in-residence at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability. “There are two million kids in the U.S. with these disabilities, emotional and behavioral disabilities. That’s a tremendous waste of human resources.”

In searching for a school that was proactive in working with these students, Habib found out about Somersworth High School and its efforts in reducing the dropout rate among at-risk students. Instead of taking a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline, Somersworth adopted the positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) model that is used in schools nationwide to help students improve behavior. At Somersworth, a PBIS-influenced program called RENEW allowed Kelsey to tell her life story and articulate her goals to a network of adults she could trust and lean on for support, and who would help her map out a plan for graduating from high school.

Reflecting on her experience in the RENEW program, Carroll said that what made the biggest difference was “having a big support system and a support team that was willing to put in the time and effort to always say they were going to do something and actually follow through with it. They helped me believe I could do it and could pass.”

As Carroll travels the state to promote the film, Habib said that her first-hand account of how she overcame challenges has been indispensable.

“Kelsey resonates strongly with people because she can talk about how she felt as a freshman and sophomore and why she was such a bully and why she had so many behavior challenges,” he said. “It was because she wasn’t feeling successful. And she was angry and she had no outlet to talk about the struggles in her life. Once she had that outlet in RENEW and once she saw a path to graduation, she could talk about why her behavior changed. She’s an incredible teacher and educator.”

A story like Carroll’s, Habib added, needs to be heard, especially in light of the school shooting that took place in Newtown, Conn., in December. The perpetrator of that crime was socially isolated and thought to have struggled with emotional issues.

“For whatever reason, it wasn’t an effective intervention. And look what happened,” Habib said. “I’m not suggesting Kelsey would have done that, but there are a lot of kids who have very difficult things happening in their lives and their minds, and we need to make sure they get the support they need.”

“Who Cares About Kelsey?” will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday in Clements Hall at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. The screening is free and open to the public.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.