Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sometimes Good Intentions Aren't Enough Part I

My little corner of the world has gone through a lot in the past few months. We have been in the national news because of the four deaths involving teenagers at a local high school. The first, a car accident, appears to be linked to the next two, the result of a pact in which two girls stood in front of a train, together. The fourth, a suicide by hanging, does not seem to have a direct connection to the other two.

Of course, the school has brought in counselors who have done a heroic job of helping the other students to deal with the deaths, and there has been an outpouring of public support for the families of the dead teenagers. There have been articles in the press about how to discuss the issues with your teens, what to look for as indicators of suicidal thinking and what to do if you fear that your child is suicidal. Everyone working with teenagers in the county is urging them not to keep a peers suicidal leanings a secret; to tell a responsible adult.

All of this is good, and right, and the way to handle such things. In no way do I want to discount or minimize any effort that anyone is making to help our kids deal with this and to prevent it from happening again.

I do have a few issues to raise, however.

How willing is a kid going to be to talk to someone about were they are hurting when they are going to a school where they have to dress a certain way or be punished; where drug-sniffing dogs roam the halls (and perhaps there is even an in-school police station or probation office)?

How often is a teenager going to open up about insecurities, fears, drug use, sexual pressures, intimidation and all of the myriad emotional hurdles of adolescence in an environment that seems to value only achievement?

If that makes you uncomfortable, or defensive, or angry, think about these statements made by kids I have worked with:

  • "I tried to talk to my counselor at school but they won't let me out of class to do it."
  • "They don't have much time for me because I'm stupid."
  • "I'm getting threatened every day but I can't fight back because I'll get arrested."
  • "The counselor said that I could talk to her in confidence. Then she called my parents."
  • "I don't want to get in trouble!"
I don't mean to sound as though I am pinning it all on the schools, but let's be realistic. Public education has not exactly been the best place to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust. Frankly, I don't like to go into public schools much anymore. They don't feel like schools. They feel like lock-ups. Something about the dogs and metal detectors, I think.

And before anyone jumps to one of those worn-out arguments that measures like that are necessary, think about this. There are several excellent schools, right here in our county, that operate on a completely different philosophy, and they are doing just fine. No drug-sniffing dogs or metal detectors. Just trust and a mission of instilling a love of learning in their students. In my perfect world, the Public Schools would spend the money on a staff psychiatrist or other trained and independent mental health worker, instead of the metal detector and the drug dog or the in-house cop. Imagine that comment.

So, while there are excellent people in the public school system, the system itself is less likely to inspire the trust of a kid than the Juvenile Probation system.

I'm afraid the job of addressing issues like suicide and other tragic deaths with our teens is up to us.

(to be continued)


  1. I don't want to toot my own horn and this is not at all what I intend but here is what I am doing and one teacher seems like she actually got it right. Read my posts on my blog about my experience talking to high school students.

    I know in reality I will never know I it actually made a difference but I'm trying.

  2. Excellecnt point you are making here. The schools around me don't have metal detectors or dogs, but they do have on campus cops and my son is one of the few that got arrested by one (ugh).

    I have several teens that have been confiding in me for a few years and they are afraid to approach their own parents, teachers or anyone else. They think no one will understand and everyone will try to fix or punish them, and by "fix" they mean be sent away to some type of boarding school. That seems to be popular these days in affluent areas.

    The other day my son told me that two of his friends made a suicide pact but it was interrupted because one of them was arrested (its a couple - I am close with both of them). Now I am trying to decide if I should talk to the girl about it since I talk to her daily (the guy is in jail). How serious are they? Would she do it if he's in jail? Do I break the confidence she had in telling my son when she finds out he told me?

    On the other hand, I know for a fact that if someone is truly intent upon it, they will find a way. I have a story about that from my own teen years when I tried to stop a friend and thought for sure we had worked out a plan for him to never be alone long enough to do it.

    Anyhow thanks. Growing up in the 70's was a piece of cake compared to the _____ kids have to deal with today :(

  3. As a father of teenagers, and friend of many other parents of teenagers, it is my experience that the greatest deciding factor to the likelyhood of a good education for a child is parental involvement.

    My kids go to an other-than-public school. I do not wish to sound opulant. It is not a prep school. It is a semi-private school in the community with the support of local churches. Consistently, the local newpaper in our city of 1.5 million rates the schools independently. All schools. Private, public, and in between. Our school always ranks in top 5 out of maybe 100 for academics. And high ranking for sports and music.

    Why I wonder? I cant help but feel it has something to do with "the talk" we had when enrolling our kids. The Principal of the school told us, "Your kids' education is your responsibility. We are only the main tool you can use. But we can't do it without your involvement".

    Our school is populated, not mainly with the afluent, but mainly with parents and families who are sacrificing and stretching to keep their kids in such a school. "Investing" in our kids is probably a better way to put it.

    I hope I do not come accross as having the solution. I hope to make my point that this is A Solution we have found works.

    While I do not disagree that more attention to really reaching the kids in schools with better and more meaningful psychiatric and counseling help would likely be tremendously beneficial, the tangible example in front of me that I see making a big difference is parental involvement in our kids lives and educations.

    I often wonder if by not being involved with our kids and having a genuine, impacting relationship with them, if we are not training them for institutionalization by relying on the educational institutions to provide their relational, psycholigical, and counseling needs.

    Maybe I speak from a pipe dream or naively... although, as a recovering coke addict and alcoholic who spent a fair amount of time "out there" experiencing some of the extremities of life, I dare say naivity is not likely... so I guess my point is that I do not wish to come across as a narrow-minded, ignorant suburbanite. I know parental involement is not simple, nor easy. I am simply saying that where it exists, it seems often to make a critical difference.



  4. I know that things have changed since I was in school. Issues are much more complex now. We never had any drugs when I was a kid. It was unheard of. I often wonder what happened along the way that made it so important for people to want to escape reality.