SCHOOLS AND SUICIDES

Here is the basic formula for adolescent suicide:   VK + BK + FT + ASM + LEAL = BULLYING & SUICIDE AND SUICIDE ATTEMPTS.

Vulnerable Kids” + “Bored Kids” + “Free Time” + “Anonymous Social Media” + “Lack of Effective Adult Leadership” lead to Bullying, which in turn often leads to Suicide and Suicide Attempts by Some Vulnerable Children.  

Every one of those five variables can and must be addressed by educators, but, sadly, most schools that I know about focus on the first, the victims.  That manages to imply that it’s really the fault of the children who are intent on hurting themselves, even though the data about the impact of bullying by peers is inescapable.

What follows are three disturbing stories,  the first about a 9-year-old boy in Denver, the second about a 9-year-old girl in Birmingham, Alabama, the third about a 12-year-old girl in Lakeland, Florida.  I conclude with some very specific actions that I believe schools and the adults in charge must take, if we are to stem this epidemic of child/adolescent suicides and suicide attempts.

The first story, from Denver, Colorado: — ‘Leia Pierce shuffled out the front door on Tuesday. Her son, Jamel Myles, 9, had killed himself last week, and she was still struggling with the basics. Eating. Sleeping. “I took a shower, but I put the same clothes back on,” she said, staring at the ground. “I need him back.”

Jamel, a fourth grader at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, hanged himself in his bedroom last Thursday, according to the county coroner, and his death has plunged a mother into despair and a community into disbelief.

Ms. Pierce says her son committed suicide after a year in which he and his older sister were bullied frequently at school. Over the summer, he had told his mother he was gay. Now, she is angry at the school, which she believes should have done more to stop the taunts and insults.

Will Jones, a spokesman for Denver Public Schools, said administrators planned to conduct a thorough review of the case. “We are deeply committed to our students’ well-being,” he said in a statement.

Jamel’s death comes amid a startling rise in youth suicides, part of a larger public health crisis that has unfolded over a generation: Even as access to mental health care has expanded, the suicide rate in the United States has risen 25 percent since 1999. Middle schoolers are now just as likely to die from suicide as they are from traffic accidents.’

The second story, from Birmingham, Alabama:  “The parents of a 9-year-old Alabama girl who hanged herself say a combination of bullying and her ADHD  medications was to blame. Madison “Maddie” Whittsett, a fourth-grader from Birmingham, was declared dead at a hospital on Monday morning — three days after her mom found her hanging in her bedroom closet, she told AL.com.  …. Maddie, who suffered from ADHD, had trouble with bullies at school who called her names like “stupid” and “dumb” because she required one-on-one coaching with teachers, her parents said. Weeks prior to her death, Maddie started a new ADHD medication, which lists possible “suicidal thoughts” as a side effect.  “The bullying plus the medicine, I think, gave her the boost to do that,” her stepfather said.

Educators need to be aggressive on this issue. They must show leadership and set a tone, “We don’t do that here at our school!”  But anti-bullying campaigns, even 24/7, won’t do what needs to be done.

And while it’s essential to work with troubled kids to help them understand that suicide is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” educators also ought to be looking at the underlying causes of suicide attempts—such as intense academic stress.

I believe that schools MUST also engage students in productive uses of technology, to offset the 99% ‘consumption’ experience they otherwise have.  Schools must engage students in meaningful work, because otherwise some will spend their idle time harassing the vulnerable kids. Remember, it’s not idle hands or idle thumbs that do the Devil’s work.  Idle minds do the Devil’s work….

The Times reported Jamel Myles’s suicide, the Post about Maddie Whittsett’s, and in “Addicted to Reform,” I wrote about Rebecca Sedwick.  She was 12, not 9, but otherwise the story is frighteningly similar.

The third story, from Lakeland, Florida: When technology’s powers are ignored by adults and abused by children, death and disaster can be the outcome. Rebecca Sedwick’s story should give you pause. The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide. While there’s no disputing that the twelve-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, what happened to her requires new terminology. Perhaps we should call it “peer slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by fifteen middle school girls for over a year, according to the sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns may help, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

The “mean girls” phenomenon is not new, but what’s different and frightening today are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously. Rebecca’s mother singled out Ask.fm, Kik, and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can u die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die from the growing number of cyberbullying incidents. About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. Around 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing sites, and other websites, according to the center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use. She changed Rebecca’s cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint. Rebecca changed schools, and for a while her life seemed to have turned around. Then she began using the new apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying. (Apparently her original “offense” was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, co-founder of the Boca Raton–based KidSafe Foundation, told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels. We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents, who must demand to know what their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

More good advice: Have device-free times at home, especially at mealtimes. It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s lives if they are always looking at screens. Bedrooms should be device-free. I know families in which everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in a basket at the foot of the stairs when they head upstairs to bed. The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs. Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms. Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be. But even if most parents were to adopt these practices, schools still need to do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and—more important—determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as “digital natives,” usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help.” That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults do, because the fast-changing world of modern technology is largely alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a digital native is not the same as being a digital citizen. Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because many apps allow kids to “go nuclear” without fear of being identified. Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Some experts say that kids spend 90 percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps 10 percent doing creative work. If that’s accurate—if they’re texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting, and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time—then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices. A central function of schools is what’s often called socialization. It might be more useful to call it “developing empathy.” As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her book The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one.” She adds, “The development of empathy comes from direct experience.”  Cathy Davidson of Duke University says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom, “We are what we repeatedly do.” In my experience, the education community uses technology 80–90 percent of the time to control—everything from keeping the school’s master schedule and monitoring attendance and grades to tracking teacher performance and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have. That’s pretty much the opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help “grow adults,” then the creative use of technology—by adults and young people—must be ramped up dramatically. Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle brains and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

The law is very much on the side of the victims, and school authorities ought to know that they are obligated under federal law to protect young people. I am referring not to anti-bullying legislation, which differs from state to state, but to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes known as “that damned sports law.” Title IX clearly prohibits sexual harassment, and most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying include sexual references. Girls are called “sluts” and “hos,” boys are called “fags” and other names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent. All that violates Title IX.

Title IX also prohibits these behaviors outside the school (for example, when personal computers are used) when the behavior is disruptive to learning or affects a student’s ability to partake of the opportunities for learning and in other opportunities provided by the school. In short, schools and school administrators, under Title IX, are obligated to stop sexual cyberbullying. Moreover, they stand to lose federal funding if they do not. Some districts have paid six-figure settlements for their demonstrated failure to protect students from harassment and cyberbullying.

Money talks. Understanding the legal and financial ramifications of all forms of bullying is one of the best incentives to get schools involved in developing specific programs for students, families, administrators, teachers, staff, including the janitors. Self-interest is a powerful incentive, as are the threats of federal involvement and individual lawsuits. Together, these should motivate schools to proactively develop strong prevention programs—to let everyone know that “we don’t tolerate bullying here, because we’re better than that.”

But defensive behavior is not sufficient. Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them twenty-four hours a day. You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored—but that was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. Because computers seemingly have all the answers, young people need to be able to formulate good questions.

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’ll be working together; they’ll be gathering, assimilating, and analyzing data; they’ll be learning how to present what they are learning. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the regurgitation that is the hallmark of most education today.

Another plus is that the hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannotspend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored, and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively. Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyberbully others. Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

Please remember that “We are what we repeatedly do.” We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands. It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient. Technology can be used for good or ill, and how schools employ it depends in large part on us.  And using technology to create knowledge and engage children will save lives.

Perhaps doing that will save the life of someone you care about,  or perhaps it will save the lives of children who, if allowed, would grow up to cure cancer, win Academy Awards, serve as effective political leaders, or become brilliant classroom teachers!

Here’s that formula again.

VK + BK + FT + ASM + LEAL = BULLYING & SUICIDE AND SUICIDE ATTEMPTS.  

Vulnerable Kids” + “Bored Kids” + “Free Time” + “Anonymous Social Media” + “Lack of Effective Adult Leadership” lead to Bullying, which in turn often leads to Suicide and Suicide Attempts by Some Vulnerable Children.  

Please share this, and please intervene wherever you have influence.

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3 thoughts on “SCHOOLS AND SUICIDES

  1. Such an important, thoughtful story on a very tough issue. I’d like to see teachers use this problem as part of the curriculum. Let kids do research. Interview parents, peers and experts in the community. Propose possible responses. I don’t think this is adult abdication, but rather engaging young people on an issue many about.

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