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Comments on truancy and rape point to a deeper misreading of teenagers

A controversial speech by a school principal who said students skipping school are more likely to get raped speaks to a failure to understand the complex issues teenagers face, writes Waikato youth worker Jared Ipsen 

I wagged school a lot as a teenager. Dealing with heavy anxiety and depression, trying to juggle the enormous social pressures of being a small, bisexual, creative-type at an all-boys school, as well as exams I knew I’d fail, I would duck across the rugby field in between classes and find sanctuary wandering around the CBD. At that time, there were no youth centres in Hamilton, but high school just wasn’t an environment I felt safe in.

If you look at the stats, I wasn’t the only one. A recent Ministry of Education report found that only 63% of students attended school regularly in 2017. That means a whopping 37% of our young people aren’t finding belonging and refuge inside of their high schools. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to this – but it’s pretty clear that, by and large, our current model of schooling just doesn’t work for our rangatahi.

By now, you would have seen the video of Hamilton Fraser High School principal Virginia Crawford’s speech to her students. Crawford’s speech contained a number of problematic opinions, including an alleged correlation between wagging school and being raped (if anyone can find the research showing this, please send it through). While her intentions behind what I can only describe as a tirade may have been sound, and likely came from a place of deep care and frustration, the prevailing attitude that young people just want to ditch school and “buy fish and chips” speaks to a failure to understand the complex issues teenagers face in society today.

As a youth worker at a local charity, we see more and more young people coming through our doors in tears, disillusioned and utterly broken by their school. Technology and social issues have been advancing at a breakneck speed, but it doesn’t seem like our education system has made any attempt to keep up. Our nation’s teenagers, with their passions and dreams and hope for the future, are being forced to fit in to an intellectual box. Don’t cope well with exams? You must be stupid. Find it difficult to deal with social situations? You aren’t normal. Struggling with mental health issues inside a system that doesn’t cater to your needs, or even admit they exist? Harden up.

New Zealand has by far the highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD. The classic Kiwi attitude of “she’ll be right” may have worked for the last generation, but we’re struggling. Those who we have entrusted with our greatest asset are speaking down to them, alleging that if they don’t attend school 100% of the time they’ll amount to nothing. Add to that the pressure of constant judgement through social media, and the slim chances of getting a job after graduating – why wouldn’t you feel hopeless?

I’m not trying to condemn Virginia Crawford or the staff at Fraser High. Being a teacher isn’t an easy job. But we need to take a step back and look at how the beliefs we hold about our young people shape their opinions of themselves.

We need to rethink the way we treat our rangatahi in this country. We need to do something, anything, to stop our teenagers from killing themselves. We need to look at a schooling system that clearly isn’t working. We need to rethink what “tough love” really looks like. Our country is in crisis, and we need to work harder to keep our people alive and motivated so they can carry us in to the future.

International research shows that effective education comes when teenagers feel safe and secure. If home isn’t a safe place, and their community isn’t a safe place, then school needs to be in order for teenagers to thrive. You want to keep a young person engaged in their schooling? Base their curriculum around their passions and interests, rather than the current ‘one size fits all’ approach. Give more space to their struggle and pain, and come from a place of understanding rather than ignorance. Realise that every generation says their parents don’t ‘get’ them, but this might be the first one where that’s actually true.

At the youth centre where I work, we’ve found that fostering creativity in young people can be a life-changing thing. The Circle of Courage model we’ve adopted has shown us time and time again that through a sense of belonging and mastery of their chosen skill, young people are turned from passive consumers to active contributors in their community.

But the first place to start is providing a place for them to belong.

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