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Is A Toxic Public School Environment Behind Increases In Child Suicide?


Many of us have fond memories of school years: good times on the playground, maybe a favorite funny teacher, hanging with friends, passing actual paper notes, watching football games in the crisp fall weather, the big deal over the prom, being in the high school musical, going out to the mall with friends… Ah, to be young again!

I suspect many of us believe this sort of nostalgia will later infuse children we send off to the same types of public mega-schools (or even private schools with an attitude) from whence we got such memories. That’s natural. We all project our experiences on our children to varying degrees.

But parents beware: these activities may still exist and be enjoyed at school, but they’re not as real because they’re overshadowed by a culture today that increasingly devalues children as individuals and even their very lives.

We live in a time when, frankly, life is cheap. Assisted suicide and euthanasia have become big trends in the West (as of 2014, children in Belgium can even opt to be euthanized). The advent of the Internet, social media, and video games are rewiring kids’ brains in weird new ways. Worse, there are fewer checks on bad behavior now that schools apparently consider “virtue” to be a dirty word with religious connotations.

In short, children today are getting lots of bad signals about how to act from lots of different places. The confusing effects of media, pop culture, political activism in schools, and garden-variety social contagion seem to be creating some very disturbing trends. I suppose it’s no wonder that the rates of truancy have been spiking lately, according to an August 30 Wall Street Journal article.

Of course, even back in the day schools were pretty large and miserable places for lots of kids, yours truly included (I avoided the prom like the plague). The worse news is that today’s mega-jaschools, which often warehouse more than 3,000 high school students in one location, aren’t their parents’ mega-schools. Schools have morphed into something far worse: huge institutions that actually seem to reinforce, enable, and encourage these trends. The most tragic of these is child suicide.

How Mega-Schools and Bullying Affect Child Suicide

The August 23 suicide of a Denver fourth grader should be a stark reminder of children’s vulnerability. That particular story noted that nine-year-old Jamel Myles killed himself in response to being bullied for “coming out as gay at school.”

He had apparently told his family over the summer, and felt validated after the encouragement he got for doing so. But, according to media reports, his experience at home did not translate to the school yard.

Jamel’s mother reported, “He went to school and said he’s gonna tell people he’s gay because he’s proud of himself.” He even chose the first day of school to start wearing artificial fingernails. According to the Denver Post, Jamel’s sister reported to her mother afterwards that Jamel told her the kids told him he should kill himself.

There’s a lot to unpack from this horrific tragedy. Mostly, a child just wants to have friends and fit in. Children will generally do whatever they think it takes to earn social approval or, at least, to avoid social punishments. Sadly, they often get mixed messages, whether from social media and pop culture or the education establishment itself. The confusion is too often more than kids can bear.

Tragically, youth suicide is increasing. Just weeks ago, four students across one California school district killed themselves, and the youngest was a 10-year-old boy. Rates of depression and mental instability among children have been growing for a quite a while now. Jamel’s case illustrates an even more disturbing development: the recent increase in the rate of suicide for elementary school age children.

While still rare, suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death for children ages 5-11. For children 10-14, it is the second leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC reported in 2016 that the demographic with the highest increase in rate of suicide is 10- to 14-year-old girls, for whom the rate tripled. Not surprisingly, suicide rates for students drop in the summer and rise with the new school year.

The template of the mega-school culture hasn’t really changed much since a relentlessly bullied junior high classmate of mine killed himself decades ago. However, the overall climate has gotten a whole lot worse since then.

The two red flags in Jamel’s story, and so many others, are the school environment and bullying. Youth suicide often stems from relationship problems, according to scholars. Most of that is related to peer relations at school. Being bullied is a trauma that leaves a nasty imprint.

Every Parent Should Be Aware of Mega-Schooling

The sheer size of bureaucratized mega-schools is alienating. Jamel attended Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver. As of 2017, that school housed 448 children. Most of those kids will no doubt go on to attend far larger middle and high schools, which generally have thousands of students.

To understand how badly children are corralled today compared to the past, consider this: In 1929-30, there were about 248,000 public schools in the United States. By 2013-14, after the U.S. population had nearly tripled, the number of public schools had shrunk to 98,000. No matter the reason, these numbers reflect a much more de-personalized, de-humanized model of factory schooling.

That such an environment might be harmful to children shouldn’t be surprising. Factory schooling causes a feeling of compulsory incarceration that, beyond doubt, adversely affects the mental health of many children. Psychologist Peter Gray at Boston College has studied in depth the harmful effects of mass schooling on children’s mental health because it is an abnormal setting for children that feels like a prison. Superb and extensive work on the subject has also been done by John Taylor Gatto, who won teacher of the year awards from both New York City and New York state.

Mega-schools and bullying go together, and always have. The setting is tailor-made for bullying. After the Parkland shooting, I listed several of the reasons why in a Federalist article “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids.”

Consider also that mega schools are breeding grounds for hierarchical cliques, an ordinary result of any large setting that promotes conformity. In them, people naturally segregate into smaller and ranked groups. At the top are the “popular”: queen bees, jocks, and others who tend to make it their business to oversee and regulate relationships among peers.

This sows the seeds of status anxiety and allows for a brand of bullying called relational aggression, which includes rumor-mongering intended to harm peers’ social standing. This “Mean Girl” dynamic gets reinforced in the schools and youth culture, as it’s modelled and promoted over and over again in hundreds of movies and TV shows geared towards teens.

How Mega-schools Actually Increase Bullying

I’m sure most of you are aware that many public schools have anti-bullying programs. The first thing to notice is that they seem woefully ineffective. Not only that, a 2013 study found that schools with specialized anti-bullying programs actually experienced an increase in the rate of bullying (likely because they allow bullies to better select their targets).

Parents need to wake up and realize that public schools and their teachers’ unions comprise a mega-bureaucracy.

The media and education establishment also constantly highlight only certain types of bullying as wrong—victims can only be homosexual or transgender, for example—while ignoring the reality that bullying affects students of all stripes. But as Jamel’s case suggests, ineffective implementation leaves even protected categories vulnerable.

Even more troubling, the schools actually tolerate and tacitly support certain types of bullying. Have you ever noticed that there seems to be a special pact between the alpha students and the school bureaucracy? I think that’s because schools actually have a stake in maintaining the hierarchies and the relational aggression that comes with them.

Parents need to wake up and realize that public schools and their teachers’ unions comprise a mega-bureaucracy. Like any other bureaucracy with thousands upon thousands of people in any given location, the mega-school relies on pecking orders to reinforce conformity. It is a massively centralized power base.

This means that student hierarchies modify overall student behavior in accordance with the bureaucracy’s expectations. In focusing anti-bullying campaigns on identity politics, administrators can shift blame away from the school environment (that relies on bullying) and onto certain individuals who express certain forms of bigotry.

Beware Copycat Behavior

So, parents, while you might find a sense of nostalgia in your past school experiences—and perhaps even your children will if they are atop the school’s totem pole—mega-schools are not at all low-stress places for children. They basically take their cues from others in those places.

People tend to imitate others. It’s even physically reflexive at times, such as the contagion of yawning. There’s a good argument that the herd effect and conformity are built into our biology as a means of survival—safety in numbers and so forth. We learn a lot by example.

We need to be very cautious about the tendency to imitate, especially when we are dealing with children in their formative years.

But we need to be very cautious about the tendency to imitate, especially when we are dealing with children in their formative years. Social contagions easily take root when kids feel socially pressured. I believe this is why more kids are taking on personas—such as social justice warrior or the transgender kid—once they learn that projecting a particular persona affords them a measure of protection in the institutionalized setting of school. This behavior is only reinforced by anti-bullying campaigns that are not universal but apply only to special protected groups.

More than ever before, kids will engage in whatever behaviors are deemed acceptable among their peers, especially if they were never guided in principles of virtue and honor, and if they lack strong families to guide them. For the exactly the same reason, we should probably expect even more kids to engage in bullying.

Even worse is when kids are haunted by constant suggestions of suicide, which grows along with the increasing incidence of it. As the guru of influence and persuasion Robert Cialdini has noted “What’s focal is causal.” Out of sight, out of mind. But if something is constantly in sight, it may be constantly on your mind, presenting itself as a solution to your problems.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the hit Netflix series that glorifies teen suicide, “13 Reasons Why,” is set in a typical mega-school culture. There have been copycat suicides related to the show. We’ve known about suicide contagion since the publication of Goethe’s romantic tragedy “The Sorrows of Young Werther” in the 18th century. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline spiked by 65 percent in the week after the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in June.

So let’s never forget that there is a strong power of suggestion in human beings, and even more so in children. The answers aren’t easy, but we can’t even discuss the answers until we track down the causes of the problem. Nostalgia and vicarious youth may feel good, but little will change unless parents reject the factory schooling to which we subject our kids.