Suicide Note Calls Out Pressure on Students

Death of a 16-year-old at a competitive high school in California leaves many asking whether too much is being asked of students.

February 12, 2018
 
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The notes he left behind were heartbreaking.

A 16-year-old student at Newport Harbor High School, in California, ended his life last month -- despite being apparently happy and successful. He left behind several notes that are circulating online.

He took care to say that he didn't want his parents or other family members to blame themselves. He talked about how much he loved his coaches. But he said that he couldn't go on anymore because of the pressure at his highly competitive high school, where going to a good college is the norm, and where parents and teachers expect top performance.

"One slipup makes a kid feel like the smallest person in the world. You are looked at as a loser if you don't go to college or if you get a certain GPA or test score. All anyone talks about is how great they are or how great their kid is," he wrote. "It's all about how great I am. It's never about the other kid. The kid who maybe does not play a sport, have a 4.0 GPA, but displays great character." He said his public high school felt like a private school. "So much pressure is placed on the students to do well that I couldn't do it anymore."

The student's death comes at a time when many people involved in admissions -- on the high school and college sides -- worry about excessive pressure being placed on high schoolers who aspire to attend top colleges. Just last month, a counselor wrote an open letter on the topic -- focusing not on suicide but the mental stress placed on students, in many cases forcing them to give up their passions to maximize the number of honors courses they can take.

This month, some have shared a letter sent by the principal at the California student's high school to students, faculty members and parents.

"Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning A’s in AP classes became the norm," wrote Sean Boulton, the principal.

"Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures. When we grew up nobody asked us what our G.P.A. was, and it was 'cool' to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls -- and our children."

Boulton wrote that it is time to broaden the concepts of success. "We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university." What people should do, he wrote, is "say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don’t want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a C in a tough class and are proud of themselves. ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless."

And Boulton noted that despite his high school's reputation for producing students who go on to top colleges, the high school had waiting lists for programs in culinary arts and construction technology.

He appealed to parents to help. "Please know there is so much behind the scenes we do to diffuse this environment, but we can not do it alone anymore," Boulton wrote. He added, "We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don't live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world … it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction. I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry."

Asked about what the high school would try to do now, Boulton said via email that efforts are going to involve everyone involved with the school. "What I can tell you is that they are fully committed to finding ways to minimize unnecessary pressures for students within our school boundaries, and provide students an even greater caring and supportive learning environment," he said. "This is an important and delicate issue, especially in an era with high societal expectations and pressures."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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