Youth Ed is an op-ed series by the student-run digital space, Yellowhammer Youth, that seeks to highlight what Alabama public schools are not teaching.
When I was fourteen, my mother endowed me with words that prove themselves more true with every passing day. “Olivia,” she began, steadying herself as if this was to be some prolific magnum opus, “these next four years will be some of the hardest you endure. You will not leave the same person you entered.” Gee. How inspiring. To a rising freshman encased in the overwhelming anxiety of her first day of high school and the legitimacy of “freshman friday”, that sure was just what I needed. Of course I was naive and jaded by my own youth; I promptly dismissed the remark as I saw fit. Though, after living through those years she spoke of, enduring and observing the trials and tribulations of Alabama public school, I could not have been more wrong.
I have lived in this state from birth, starting in the small retirement community of Florence and relocating to the suburban streets of Madison - an affluent community neighboring Huntsville - before I began the first grade. I have been a part of the Alabama Public School system all my life, never knowing anything different. Currently, that school system is ranked 44th overall by Forbes’s list of best and worst schools on the basis of class size, funding, standardized test scores, physical safety, and lowest dropout rates. Within the state itself, the Madison City School system - where I currently attend school - is ranked third by al.com’s “50 Best School Districts in Alabama” due to its “state test scores, college readiness, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, teacher quality, public school district ratings, and more.” What this data does not quantify, however, is the lack of mental health resources in Madison City Schools. What this data does not showcase is that despite the teen suicide rate in Alabama increasing by 15% since 2016, little to no efforts have been made to implement real change in our school systems (United Health Foundation).
What no school system in Alabama will admit is that they have no idea how to deal with it. In the past five years, my high school alone has experienced the suicide of two students with Madison City as a whole having that number quadrupled. Now, one may say to themselves: out of thousands of students that number isn’t so high, is it? But as Alabamians, Americans, and humans, we must remind ourselves of and continue to work towards a concept that should be commonplace worldwide: regardless of how seemingly small the percentage of individuals committing suicide is, that number is always too much. There is never a time when the loss of human life should be quantified as insignificant. There is never a situation when the unnecessary death of another person should not inspire massive alterations in how we conduct ourselves - in how the institutions which prey upon us conduct themselves.
I am not insinuating that Alabama or, by proxy, Madison City Schools does not care about the mental health of its students. I am, however, saying that they don’t care enough. I am saying that they aren’t caring fast enough, deep enough, and long enough. As a senior in high school, I have seen the mental health crisis in Alabama approached in one way only: undercover. In my 12+ years of experience in our state’s public school system, the most that mental health has ever been acknowledged has been through general end-of-class survey questions of, “do you have an adult at [...] that you could talk to?” or the forced connection between “advisory” teachers and their pre-assigned students. It is never presented as the urgent issue that it is. While certain programs such as the “Text to Protect” initiative in Madison City serve as a great asset to those who are at a danger to themselves or others, they fall short in being a viable resource to the general public. There is nothing available for those of us who are deemed “not mentally ill enough” to be on a watch list but still have more absences than we can count, still endure bullying that everyone dismisses as being part of the high school experience, still come to class each day and are forced to pretend that we are not all falling apart. Because the truth is that our schools are not equipped to handle that. Not our teachers, not our policies, not our administrators, not even our fellow students. And so we are the numbers you will never see. We are the names you will never know. We are the kids you never listened to. And those suicide numbers? Those “small” percentages? They were us once, too.
It has been three and a half years since my mother spoke those words to me. Even now, at seventeen, I am not someone that fits the traditional picture of who would be affected by this subject. By the time I graduate, I will have completed over eleven AP courses, been an officer in ten different clubs, and ranked in the top 5% of my class - and that’s just the problem. As the curriculum continues to become more rigorous, as inhumane levels stress placed on children are becoming normalized, as the face of bullying is entirely opposite of what it was thirty years ago, we as a state must rise to the occasion. We must look beyond the watch lists, beyond the traditional picture of “at risk.” We must change the program. We must stop looking beyond ourselves but inside ourselves. We must change the stigma.
This article is dedicated to the students whom our system failed.
Written by: Olivia Blanton / @o.blanton / @just_olive99
Photography by: Olivia Blanton / @o.blanton / @just_olive99
Edited by: Isabel Hope / @isabama / @isabamahope
Elizabeth Webber / @lizflute13 / @elizabethw169