Middle School Should (Still) Give You the Heebie Jeebies

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A few years ago, a family member (I'll call her Wanda) was principal of a middle school. "Jane," a sixth-grader, asked her to mediate a conversation between her and her best friend, "Maria." Wanda thought this was a very mature suggestion, so she brought both girls into her office. "Maria," Wanda said, "Jane tells me she would like to discuss a recent misunderstanding." Jane nodded, then said, "I didn't really go down on your boyfriend."

The rest of the conversation was peppered with terms like "BJ," "head," and whatever other euphemisms 11- and 12-year-old girls were using at that time to refer to oral sex. Wanda was shocked by the casual way the girls used the terms, but not surprised by the subject of the discussion. After all, when she first became principal, she attended a conference on middle school health, at which she had learned that oral sex was incredibly common among middle school students.

For these students, information about sexual activity is likely largely coming from peers rather than from adults or reputable sources. In fact, as Teddye Snell reported last month, "more than 40 percent of adolescents [have] had intercourse before talking to their parents about safe sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases." That's a problem, as one study recently showed that by age 15, one in four sexually active girls had acquired a sexually-transmitted infection, and half of them were infected within two years of becoming sexually active.

Preteen sex, it seems, is only one small piece of a much larger, more frightening picture. If the results of a study coming out of Nevada are typical of student behaviors nationwide, all of us--preteens, teens, parents, teachers, and community members--are in a whole lot of trouble. The biennial Nevada Youth Risk Behavior Survey, as reported by Emily Richmond at the Las Vegas Sun, revealed some profoundly disturbing trends:

Nearly one in five students surveyed in 2009 admits to using methods such as cutting and burning to intentionally harm themselves. Nearly that many of the surveyed students — in grades 6-8 — said they had gone hungry in the prior month because there wasn’t enough food at home. And close to a third of the students said they had been bullied at school in the prior year, with half of those attacks launched through digital means such as e-mail, text messaging or Web sites.

Among the study's other findings, Richmond writes, are these:

• Forty-four percent of students said neither their parents nor other adults in their families had talked to them about what they expect them to do or not do when it comes to sex.


• The percentage of middle schoolers who said in the prior month they had ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking — 31.1 percent, up from 28.5 percent in 2007.

• The percentage of middle schoolers who said they had ever used marijuana was up slightly, as was the percentage of students who said they had used over-the-counter medicines to get high.

Other students face additional challenges. In an open letter to President Obama, Michigan middle school teacher Cossondra George writes that some students

struggle despite their best efforts. Learning is tough for them, for a variety of reasons, from natural ability to lack of prior knowledge, to some sort of learning disability. Still others come to school begrudgingly, fighting every attempt to engage them. These students deal with issues beyond my ability to touch them. They are often in trouble with the law, even at the young age of 12. They have issues with drug and alcohol abuse. They have mental health issues. Some of these students do respond to my efforts; others, simply come to school because it is court ordered.

So, let's review: self-harm through cutting or burning, hunger, bullying, drunk driving, drug abuse, learning disabilities, and mental illness. All this drama and conflict comes at a time when students are making decisions that have life-long repercussions. From a post at Burb Mom I learned "middle school is also a critical academic juncture for students who are struggling – a time when many basically give up on their dreams of graduation and higher education."

Whatever we're paying middle school teachers, it's not enough.

So, what can we do as parents, teachers, and allies of middle school students?

The post at Burb Mom recommends that parents be especially vigilant for signs that their children are being bullied or are suffering a loss of self-esteem. Resources on bullying are available at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website Stop Bullying Now.

We can make sure children in our community are maintaining good health and nutrition. For current news on teen health, check out Nancy L. Brown's blog Teen Health 411. You can also visit Middle School Health Esteem, a blog written by a middle-school health education teacher.

We can ensure young people have all the information they need about sexual activity, whether it be through pregnancy prevention programs like this one in Massachusetts or through online resources like the absolutely amazing and thorough Scarleteen, which is written by health-savvy young adults and promises "sex ed for the real world."

Besides arming ourselves with information about opening up communication with our young people, what else might we do? What are your ideas?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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