News Article Details

Op-ed: Does school affect mental health?

Deseret News - 5/24/2018

Families are suffering from the tragedy of suicide in increasing numbers. School and state leaders are attempting to find causes and cures for these crises. The problem of youth suicide and related mental health issues has been a grave concern across the Wasatch Front.

Several schools in Utah have been in the headlines in recent years because of the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts by students in traditionally upper-middle-class areas. Although these schools have been in the public crosshairs, many school leaders see increasing numbers of students struggling with anxiety, depression aggression and other mental health problems in other high schools across the Wasatch Front. Is there a common denominator in the increase of these issues? Could school size be the culprit?

Nationally, school shootings have become a more and more common occurrence. Could suicide rates and school shootings be related?

Beginning in 2000-01, a study was conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education. The study was conducted over the next eight years and focused on school size and its impact on student achievement, climate, school operating costs and school construction funding. A full report of the study was published in June of 2015.

The report concluded school size does matter. The study team developed recommendations for state policy makers to consider each issue related to school size

  1. Create a policy establishing maximum school sizes by school level (elementary, middle and high). These maximum school sizes would be set at the enrollment levels at which school operating costs were no longer benefitting from economies of scale and where student performance begins to decrease due to larger school size.
  2. Institute a competitive grant program to support construction of small schools and/or the renovation of existing large school buildings. Such programs would help accommodate school-within-school models — that is, the program would be targeted toward replacing or reconfiguring the lowest performing large schools in the state.
  3. Cap enrollment based on the points at which schools start becoming both less cost efficient and less productive. These enrollment limits are set at 700 students for elementary schools, 900 students for middle schools and 1,700 students for high schools. The study team does not recommend that schools should be this large, but no newly constructed schools should be allowed to exceed these limits.
It is interesting to note that both Lone Peak High School and Herriman High School, two of several Utah schools experiencing higher suicide rates, each exceed 2,500 students in the current year. Columbine High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were well over the 2,000-student enrollment mark when school shootings occurred both by current or former students.

Concurrent with the Maryland study, a research study was being conducted by Dr. David A. Kaiser, a well-known neurotherapist in the eastern part of the country. The study was published in 2005 and focused on high school size and neurobiological considerations. With the ability to evaluate students with neuro-imaging investigations, students who exhibited abnormal aggression or violent behavior were shown to have areas of the brain with right hemisphere dysfunction. It was concluded that social interaction, mostly peer rejection, was associated with aggression and conduct problems in children.

Kaiser concludes, “With the rise of the mega-schools, high schools with enrollments in the thousands, rejection may become commonplace as adolescent competition becomes increasingly more intense.” Rejection, isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety are some of the most common complaints heard by local counselors in interactions with students in large high schools in the area.

Other research suggests that it is irrational to expect children to develop normally in larger groups than they are biologically equipped to deal with. And in a seminal 1964 study on social functioning and high school size, Roger Barker and Paul Gump determined that students in smaller schools participated in twice as many extracurricular activities as students in larger schools. Further studies conclude smaller schools were superior to larger schools in athletic participation; extra-curricular activity participation; absenteeism; dropout rate; student satisfaction; minor and serious rule infraction; self-esteem; locus of control; interpersonal relationships; sense of community; parental involvement; interpersonal relations between teacher and students; and even teacher attitudes.

As our political and school leaders grapple with the heartache of suicide and other mental health issues in our schools, funding programs like “Hope Squad” and “School within a School” can help. Adding additional counselors and social workers in our schools may also provide some relief, but looking at the size of our schools should also be part of the discussion.

CREDIT: Donna Barnes


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