Living and Thinking of Dying in DC Schools

August 11, 2018

Children in DC’s traditional and charter public schools are suffering greatly. Many have thought about dying and have developed plans to realize their thoughts — more than a few actually have attempted suicide. Meanwhile, a significant number of them are scared as hell to go to school; once there, an increasing number of them are becoming involved in fights, according to a government survey.


The Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 2017 captured voluntary and anonymous responses to a variety of questions and scenarios from 8,578 high school students and 8,799 middle schoolers in DC. It was released earlier this year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). While explosive and heartbreaking, the survey fell between the cracks, receiving little or no attention at the time.


That may have been because the media, elected officials and many citizens were enthralled with a so-called graduation scandal. After news reports raised questions about the validity of graduation rates at Ballou High School, an independent audit revealed that 937 of the 2,758 high school graduates citywide had received diplomas even though they had failed to meet attendance and academic requirements set by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Much finger-pointing, head-scratching, hand-wringing and name-calling ensued; it continues still.


Ironically, if anyone had cared to look a tad more deeply during the graduation hysteria, they may have discovered a partial answer to why students weren’t going to school. For example, a significant number of middle schoolers — 16.2 percent of African-Americans, 18.5 percent of Hispanics, 6.1 percent of whites, and 11.5 percent of Asians — reported missing one or more days of school in the 30 days prior to the survey.

Their reason: They felt unsafe.


They weren’t alone: 11 percent of Hispanic, nearly 9 percent of black, 8.3 percent of Asian and 4.5 percent of white high schoolers shared the same anxiety.


In 2017, 67.5 percent of middle school survey respondents said they had been involved in a fight — up from 63.7 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, 26.7 percent said they carried a weapon, up from 23.1 percent.


Nearly 10 percent of high school students said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in the 12 months prior to the survey; that is up from nearly 8 percent in 2015. Additionally, 18.9 percent said they had had personal property stolen or deliberately damaged — up from 17.5 percent in 2015.


“We can do better for our youth, and these data are a valuable tool for helping us direct our time, funding, and efforts,” Hanseul Kang, DC’s state superintendent of education, said when the report was released.

She’s right, of course.  


Adults have mostly given lip-service about responding to the needs of public school students. At best they have been inconsistent, flitting from one issue to the next.


There are recent reports that they have been tinkering with redesigning a report card that would distinguish one school from another. They may resort to some sort of one- to five-star rating system, as if schools could be assessed like hotels or restaurants, and public education were a plate of Etouffee.


Some adults also have been involved with rewriting citywide regulations and DCPS policy on credit recovery, which may be a necessary and good exercise. But should changes occur without a deep and deliberate examination of public school students’ responses in last year’s survey?


“Many youth experience prolonged depression that interferes with everyday activities, and many report they are not able to find the help they need,” OSSE officials wrote. “Results of the survey reveal there is a great need for culturally appropriate prevention and intervention programs.”


As I read the report, I was blown away by the answers from young Hispanic girls. “Latina middle school females have attempted suicide at over four times the rate of white female students (20.4 percent to 4.7 percent),” according to the survey. Equally disturbing, 32.5 percent of middle school Hispanic females said they seriously thought about killing themselves; African-American girls were slightly lower at 32.1 percent.


“High school females were more likely than males to feel so sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities, at a rate of 33.1 percent to 20.8 percent, according to the survey. Specifically, 11.8 percent of high school males and 19.1 percent of females thought of killing themselves.

The despair among high school girls covers all races: 11.7 percent of whites; 18 percent of blacks, and 18.4 percent of Asians. The deepest disturbance appeared to be with Latinas;  22.8 percent of them reported entertaining suicidal thoughts.


What is happening with Hispanic girls?


District officials may be trying to protect immigrants, strengthening DC’s sanctuary city policy while advocating for Dreamers to prevent their deportation by the administration of President Donald Trump. But beyond those issues, there are a host of other concerns that seem to be squeezing the hope out of Latinas and other girls in this city.

Maybe after adults finish playing their game of one star-two star, they might find the time to focus more on DC children, particularly those in public schools. They desperately need our help.

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