November 17, 2018

Changing Teens’ Thinking

The fresh-faced teenager looks like the girl next door until she displays her swastika tattoo in an episode of “The Teen Files,” which continues this week on UPN. “I think the Holocaust was a good thing,” she says, serenely. “[Hitler] probably should have done more.”

But by the end of the program, the girl and two other racist teens have met a Holocaust survivor and a black man paralyzed during a hate crime. They have met his mother. And they have changed their minds. “I don’t think you can judge people by their [religion] or skin color,” one of them concludes, tearfully.

It’s the kind of social change that has been the focus of producer-director Arnold Shapiro’s 36-year television career.

That was crucial for the producer, best known for his searing, Oscar-winning, 1978 documentary “Scared Straight!” “Documentaries have always been my mainstay, because that is where I know I can really make a difference,” says Shapiro, whose landmark piece on child abuse, “Scared Silent,” simultaneously aired on three networks in 1992.

Shapiro, 58, learned about changing the world from his Jewish parents, who owned an Alhambra beauty parlor and were active in the Anti-Defamation League. He remembers the day two desperate Polish immigrants entered the shop: “My father spoke to them in Yiddish, then helped find them jobs and a place to live, as he had for so many other people.” As for his mother: “Around 1960, she hired an African-American hairstylist when nobody else would, and put her booth right up in front of the shop.”

Shapiro, who produced his first TV show at age 22, is continuing to follow his parents’ legacy with “The Teen Files,” a series that tackles issues such as teenage drinking, smoking, violence, sex and racism.

“I’ve often been there with the cameras when something happened that was so shocking to young people that they did change,” he says. ‘Scared Straight!’ is a perfect example of that. I’ve seen it happen and I’ve seen it stick.”

“The Teen Files” continues Aug. 19, 8 p.m. on UPN with “The Truth About Drinking” and “Smoking: Truth or Dare.”