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One curiosity after another

Suicide, Bullying, Sleep, and the Race to Nowhere

photo credit Terri Miles,

This week, a girl in our region ran away for several days, hiding out in an abandoned building through days of snow while the town and the FBI searched for her on foot and with helicopters. They found her yesterday. I don’t know the family and suspect the news media don’t know why exactly she ran away. One paper reported that children they interviewed said the girl had been bullied and wanted to run away because she knew her parents would make her go to school and she couldn’t take it anymore. Parent gossip this morning – said to be from a morning news show I didn’t see and can’t confirm- is that the girl’s father said she was stressed out about the CMTs – the CT Mastery Tests that determine schools’ progress or lack-thereof, but which the schools also use to some extent to level students.

Last night I saw the movie Race to Nowhere, a compelling and rousing condemnation of the way we educate our kids. The teachers sacrifice to be there, only to get ground down and driven out. The kids are pressured, exhausted, and miserable, they don’t learn how to think, solve problems, or act with initiative, and the results are being seen not just in universities but with employers who find young employees expect to be guided through their work. I think any parent should watch it, but also any citizen who cares about the kind of thinking and personal characteristics the people who will be leading our country and running our businesses have.

Afterward, a man got up and said he’d really hated it, that, essentially, it had been all emotion and no facts and no solutions. I disagree – I suspect that he found it painful enough to watch he was shutting out the facts and solutions. He particularly took issue with a story at the core of the movie, of a 13 year old who killed herself after getting a bad grade on a math exam, saying “I don’t believe teen suicide has gone up.”

Well, if that were true the claims the movie makes would be undermined, but it unfortunately it really has gone up. Here are the most recent statistics I could find. Or better yet, let me just quote the 2007 CDC report:

Suicide rates for 10-19 year-old females and 15-19 year-old males increased significantly in 2004

Following a decline of more than 28 percent, the suicide rate for 10- to-24-year-olds increased by 8 percent, the largest single-year rise in 15 years, according to a report released today in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention′s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

The decline took place from 1990 to 2003 (from 9.48 to 6.78 per 100,000 people), and the increase took place from 2003 to 2004, (from 6.78 to 7.32), the report said.  “This is the biggest annual increase that we′ve seen in 15 years. We don′t yet know if this is a short-lived increase or if it′s the beginning of a trend,” said Dr. Ileana Arias, director of CDC′s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Either way, it′s a harsh reminder that suicide and suicide attempts are affecting too many youth and young adults. We need to make sure suicide prevention efforts are continuous and reaching children and young adults.”

I would never have of thought it before watching Race to Nowhere, but I can’t help but notice that No Child Left Behind, the legislation that ushered in the focus-on-testing culture in our schools, was passed in 2001 and signed into law by President Bush in 2002. That would make the school year of 2002-2003 the first year of testing compliance, and 2004 would have been the first year for schools to be under enormous pressure to show progress from their previous scores. Correlation is not causation, of course. But if teen suicide declined consistently as long as this study covered, from 1990 – 2003, only to jump in 2004, can we afford to dismiss the concerns raised by Race to Nowhere? How many children think they just can’t take school any more, and what will they do about it?The movie interviewed child after child who was unable to get their work done and still get enough sleep to function. One girl described being too tired in class to take notes, but instead just staring out in space. After years of sleep deprivation from baby-rearing, I know that feeling, and I know a sleep-deprived brain is neither careful nor supple, neither creates nor retains.According to researchers interviewed, homework is not helpful at all in elementary school. In junior high, it’s correlated with doing better, but only up to an hour a night – then kids do worse. In high school, kids did better up to two hours a night of homework, then worse. But kids were reporting workloads of 6-7 hours a night, on top of all their activities. A huge percentage of kids are getting to college – good colleges – and turn out to need remedial work to be able to do college math and writing because, despite their excellent grades, they have not retained anything from their schooling. One reason is that they’re being driven to cheat – a study of 5,000 students showed only 3% of them – three percent – had never cheated.

I was shocked at the levels of sleep deprivation kids are suffering. After the movie, several local kids stood up to talk about their work levels and when they got to sleep – the earliest kid got to sleep at midnight, but he’d had to drop all his activities to manage that. The kids seemed strained and on the edge of teariness as they spoke, passionately, about how swamped and trapped they felt.

The movie did not discuss bullying, at all. But we hear a lot about a culture of bullying that seems increasingly bad. Is it so bad because of the internet, or are we just sensationalizing it, or what? we ask ourselves.

But now I think, if the kids are so tired and pressured, I bet the bullying has a lot to do with lack of sleep. Let’s think about it. How do you feel when you haven’t gotten enough sleep? Do you get along as well with the people around you, or do you snap more and think they’re jerks more? If you’re exhausted and people are pressuring you to get work done, are you more pleasant to be around, or…not so much? And in fact, sleep deprivation has been proved about six ways to Sunday since the 1960s to increase irritability and aggression. Apparently a 2008 study in Sleep Science reported that perpetrators of domestic violence complained of major sleep loss 50% of the time, while only 7% of non-violent controls had sleep trouble. The domestic offenders also had much higher rates of insomnia and messed up sleep/wake cycles.

If not sleeping makes adults cranky, nasty, and even violent to people they love… it doesn’t seem a stretch to me that stressed-out, not-sleeping kids could become a lot nastier to each other than they would if they were getting decent rest.

If we want to fix the bullying problems that make everyone worry for children today, we’ve got to address the pressure cookers our schools have become.

Let’s improve kids’ happiness AND ability to learn and think straight by cutting the burdens on them. A place to start right now is to ask your school to stop giving more homework than the research-approved effective limits of one hour starting around 5th or 6th grade, and 2 hours for high school. Whether or not you have kids, you can write your state legislators and tell them you want the people you depend on when you’re old to be able to think creatively and solve problems — ask them to change education away from its bubble-test-preparation madness.

And if you’re at all interested, please do go to, where you can find or schedule movie screenings in your area, and check out the research for yourself (under “about the issues”).