Since the Biden administration announced in July this year that it would cancel the loan debt of 804,000 students totaling US$39 billion, the outside world has gained a new understanding of the problem of “never-ending debt” in American student loans.
At the same time, in recent years, the phenomenon of suicides in elite boarding schools in the United States has attracted more attention from parents.
From 2021 to 2023, the typical suicide cases reported by the media alone include Jack Reid of Lawrenceville School, Matthew Clemson of Phillips Exeter Academy, and Claudio Mandia of EF Academy—their lives are stuck in The best 17 years.
Many media have focused on the increasingly fierce competition and high-pressure environment, attributing the reason to students being overwhelmed by their academic workload. But if we look closely at each suicide, we will discover the real reasons for the concealment.
The dark side of elite schools
Elite boarding schools are known for their high-quality curriculum, outstanding students and teachers.
Traditionally, such a high school is like a high school affiliated with an Ivy League university. Entering such a place is equivalent to stepping into one of the top universities in the United States. Phillips Exeter Academy is the crown jewel of elite boarding schools. Alumni include Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, Robert Lincoln, son of Lincoln, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, etc.; Lawrenceville High School is the alma mater of Tsai Chongxin, one of the founders of Alibaba, with alumni spread across all circles. Celebrities and dignitaries are shining like stars.
The threshold for this type of school is extremely high and the tuition is very expensive. At about US$70,000 a year, this cost has exceeded the median annual income of American families in 2022 (US$55,000), and is obviously not affordable by ordinary families.
In order to apply for admission, students take standardized tests such as the SSAT. Nearly perfect test scores are just a starting point. Students need to have various specialties or demonstrate unique talents and talents. When it comes time to apply, parents need to take their children to the school or designated city for an interview.
The upper class in the West have a tradition of attending fixed boarding schools and universities, and are extremely loyal to their alma mater. Coupled with the unspoken rules of legacy admission, it is easier for the children of alumni to obtain admission, forming a relatively closed environment. Therefore, elite boarding schools have formed an aura of “the elite of the elite”, and the wealthy class around the world are crowded out. I want to pursue it not only to enter elite schools, but also to let my children enter a circle of people who are either rich or noble.
But in such a school, students commit suicide one after another, which will undoubtedly arouse widespread concern in society. We can also get a glimpse of the dark side behind the glamorous appearance of elite boarding schools from these cases.
Among the three suicides mentioned above, Matthew Clemson, a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, committed suicide at the beginning of this year. Neither parents nor the school have released specific reasons for the suicide. They only generally said that the student was deeply depressed.
As for the other two cases, because they involved lawsuits, parents came forward to accuse, and there were many media reports, the causes and consequences were much clearer. In these two incidents, the school either did nothing or became the perpetrator – not only did it fail to protect students’ physical and mental health and personal safety, but they even deliberately covered up the bad culture and vicious events on campus for the sake of their own reputation.
Let’s look at the first case, Jack Reid of Lawrenceville High School, who committed suicide due to school bullying. During his lifetime, Jack was rumored to have kissed and sexually harassed his classmates, and was later rumored to have been raped. The rumors were posted on student social media across the country. After the school investigated, it was confirmed that these rumors were false, but the school not only failed to announce the results to the entire school, but also failed to inform Jack and his family to help restore his reputation.
One of the students who bullied Jack was expelled from the school due to other matters. But one day, this student entered Jack’s dormitory with the school’s permission and without supervision, and continued to bully Jack with other students, causing Jack to commit suicide that night. Jack’s family had made an appointment to pick him up the next morning.
Jack’s mother is a clinical psychologist. His parents have always known about Jack’s bullying at school and encouraged him to face it and maintain communication with his classmates and school. Jack did everything he needed to do and could do. But unfortunate things still happened under the school’s nose. After the incident, the school and Jack’s family reached a settlement agreement, and the school admitted negligence and improper handling. But Jack’s life always stayed at the age of 17.
The second case is the suicide of Claudio Mandia of EF College. On the surface, this student committed suicide because of the pressure of studying and cheating, but that was not the whole reason.
EF Academy is a well-known private international school under the EF Education Group, located in New York. Claudio is an Italian student studying abroad. During his return to Italy during the winter vacation of 2022, his mother and he were infected with the new crown virus one after another, which delayed their return to school.
After returning to school, he couldn’t keep up with his schoolwork, and the death of a family member affected his mood. Claudio asked a classmate to help him with his math homework, and he was discovered. Although the parents and students sincerely apologized, explaining that the reason was the death of family members and infection with diseases, which caused them to be unable to keep up with their studies, and they were under great mental pressure and made wrong choices. But the school still decided to expel him.
Before his parents came to pick him up, the school locked him in a single room in another dormitory building, which was called solitary confinement as a form of punishment, for four days.
During these four days, his parents kept communicating with the school and asked for a lighter punishment. The night before his parents were scheduled to pick him up, several friends, accompanied by school administrators, visited Claudio and found strangulation marks on his neck, but Claudio said the injuries were from a fall in the bathroom.
Early the next morning, his sister, who studied in the same school as him, could not contact his brother. The manager told her that she had knocked on the door in the morning, but there was no response, so she guessed that Claudio was asleep.
When they went to check again, they found that he had hanged himself in the solitary room, just days before his 18th birthday.
More than a year before Claudio committed suicide, he rescued a classmate who attempted suicide. After that, the school installed anti-suicide measures in all dormitories except the one where Claudio was confined.
In both incidents, the school either did nothing or became the perpetrator.
In these two cases, both parents and students did what they should do, but they still could not escape the tragic ending. The root cause was the school’s inaction and wrong behavior.
If Lawrenceville High School could announce the results of the rumor investigation in time, safeguard Jack’s reputation in a timely manner, punish the students responsible, and effectively intervene in bullying behavior, Jack would still be the kind and responsible boy who is popular with his friends today.
If EF College could provide students with more academic and emotional support in normal times, be aware of students’ difficulties, and consider more realistic impacts, such as the epidemic and the death of students’ relatives, when dealing with cheating, and not rigidly implement school policies, That’s not the case. What is even more inappropriate is to put students in solitary confinement. But what deserves our vigilance is why these elite schools choose not to act, or do not act according to common sense? Because some elite schools care more about their own interests and reputation rather than individual students.
The students in these elite schools are carefully selected for their superior intelligence and strong body. If you can’t keep up with your studies, according to meritocracy standards, you will be unfortunately eliminated. In such an environment, the school’s sympathy and support are scarce.
In 2019, St. Paul’s School, a famous elite boarding school, was mired in scandal. Owen Labrie, a Grade 12 graduate at the time, was accused of raping a junior girl at school. Owen Labrie was admitted to Harvard with a full scholarship, and his family used a lot of force to try to cover up the rape case.
The school, considering its reputation, did not stand on the side of the victim. The defendant went to court and caused an uproar. The rape scandal at St. Paul’s School has made the public re-examine the invisible culture of so-called elite boarding schools and the deliberate cover-up of vicious incidents.
For example, 12th-grade boys compete to see who can date the most schoolgirls. There is even a room on the top floor of the dormitory just for this purpose, with the door key passed down from generation to generation of seniors. In 2021, 19 more sex scandals were revealed in this school, which brought disgrace to the school.
It is impossible for the school authorities to be unaware of these long-standing sexual assault traditions. They just thought it was not a big deal and did nothing.
What Phillips Exeter College did was even more surprising. A female student was sexually harassed by a school sports star and reported it to the school. As a result, the school’s punishment was to make the harasser bake bread and deliver it to the girls’ dormitory in person every week. After the incident spread, 700 alumni signed a petition calling for a thorough investigation. Elite schools with more social resources and support from powerful people also have greater freedom to navigate the gray area of the system. Jack’s parents mentioned in an interview with the famous American morning news “Good Morning America” that many state public school systems in the United States have anti-bullying and suicide intervention policies and regulations, but elite schools such as private schools, charter schools and religious schools , but openly absent.
Some elite schools care more about their own interests and reputations than individual students.
In the suicide case of Italian international student Claudio, Claudio’s parents accused the school of solitary confinement, forced isolation, isolation and humiliation as one of the reasons that led to the 17-year-old student’s suicide. Many people don’t understand why elite high schools have solitary confinement or isolation, which are disciplinary measures that are outside the scope of judicial institutions.
Solitary confinement is commonly used in the U.S. K-12 education system as a punishment or harm prevention measure. Many primary and secondary schools have such isolation rooms (with various names, such as isolation room, Calm room, Safe room, etc.), which are used to punish students whose behavior is out of control or inappropriate, as well as students with mental disabilities.
According to Forbes magazine, the U.S. General Accounting Office’s 2019 report stated that 33,000 students in the United States are placed in such solitary confinement rooms every year, accounting for approximately 0.1% of the total student population. Students with disabilities and students of color are more likely to be locked up. Elite private schools have greater freedom in this regard.
This phenomenon has attracted criticism from many parents because it is a measure to punish or restrict students’ personal freedom without their parents’ permission, causing serious psychological trauma to students.
Don’t be fooled by the aura of famous schools
For parents of international students, they should not be fooled by the aura of elite schools, but should understand the invisible culture behind elite schools. To evaluate a school, you must see whether it is truly student-centered, rather than just focusing on reputation and regardless of students’ physical and mental health.
Parents’ knowledge and decision-making are important. I was deeply moved by the interview with the Owen Labrie rape victim at St. Paul’s Middle School – the victim’s father decided to transfer her to another school after discovering that the school was doing nothing.
On the contrary, Jack Reid’s parents, after learning that their child had been bullied, did nothing more than encourage him to face it bravely and fight for his rights. They have too much faith in the school system and too much faith in their children’s psychological endurance.
Getting into these elite schools is hard, and making the decision to drop out or transfer is hard, but what is more important than a child’s life and physical and mental health? In addition to understanding the invisible culture on campus, parents also need to maintain communication with their children and understand their children’s difficulties and psychological state – the most important thing is: always stand on their children’s side and provide timely protection.