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School and Suicide

Controversy over the suicide of a fifth grader on campus has experts calling for clearer laws protecting students from teacher abuse and more thorough investigations

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Miao Kexin, a fifth-grader in Changzhou, East China’s Jiangsu Province, was cremated on June 17, nearly two weeks after she jumped to her death at her middle school.  

Miao had finished a writing class with her teacher surnamed Yuan. Miao’s parents cast the blame on Yuan. “Something terrible must have happened in that class that lead to the tragedy,” Miao’s father told media.  

Miao is among the growing number of students in China to have ended their lives since January. In April, a middle school student in Xuancheng, Anhui Province died after jumping from her dorm building. In May, a high school student from Shenqiu, Henan Province also jumped to his death.  

A 2018 report from the 21st Century Education Research Center, an educational think-tank, read that 79 primary and middle school students committed suicide in 2013. The number of teens that attempted or committed suicide rose to 392 between October 2016 and September 2017, the report said. 

But these reported cases are just the “tip of the iceberg,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Center, told NewsChina. “Many cases were not made public for certain reasons.” 

Elusive Truth
Following Miao’s death, her parents turned to the internet for answers. They posted photos online of her classwork from that tragic day: an essay on a story from Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. Yuan had crossed out parts of Miao’s essay where she mentioned the idea that “some people are dark inside and disguise themselves to get what they want,” and above it wrote, “Please show positive energy!”  

“I think my daughter was just trying to see things from a unique angle. It’s not negative energy like the teacher said,” Miao’s father said. In a written statement, Yuan said she had asked Miao to “add a specific example from real life and nothing else.” 

The family had voiced suspicions that Yuan had humiliated, scolded or even beat Miao during class, which Yuan denied in her statement.  

A police investigation with local education authorities concluded no abuse had occurred in the class that day, and surveillance video ruled out any other suspicions of foul play in Miao’s death. 

“With this step, law enforcement fulfilled their duties,” said Lei Siming, a lawyer from Guanheng Law Firm in Beijing. 

But Miao’s parents are not satisfied with the investigation. “They just released the results of the investigation but did not explain why our outgoing daughter suddenly went to such extremes,” her father told media. 

“In such cases, the most difficult thing is to reconstruct what happened and find out the reasons,” Lei said. “If it was a failed suicide attempt, there is still a way to find the reason. But if the child dies, parents often believe the explanations from the school and teachers are unconvincing and biased.” 

Miao’s father attempted to reach the parents of Miao’s classmates for more information, but few would speak with him. Those who did told conflicting stories. Miao’s friends removed her account from their WeChat groups the day of her death, screenshots her parents posted online show.  

When interviewed by police, Miao’s classmates denied knowledge of it, raising the suspicions of Miao’s parents and those following the case.  

“Even if something happened in the class and Miao’s classmates witnessed it, the victim’s parents often doubt their objectivity,” Lei said. After Miao’s death, many parents defended Yuan with thumbs-up emojis in the class WeChat group.  

In a follow-up investigation, the local education bureau found Yuan was tutoring students over the 2019 summer holiday for payment, which is prohibited. Miao was among the few students in Yuan’s class not attending the sessions.  

Miao’s parents suggested that Yuan might have targeted their daughter. She admitted that in October 2019 she once slapped Miao for not finishing all her classwork. After the case attracted more attention, former students of Yuan came forward online with accusations of abuse, which further cemented Miao’s parents’ conviction there was more to their daughter’s death.  

Miao’s parents also questioned the school’s handling of the suicide. According to Miao’s father, the school did not notify the family until 30 minutes after Miao jumped. “A doctor told me she was dead on arrival at the hospital,” Miao’s father said. In a Weibo post, the family expressed doubts over the school’s response time to the tragedy. 

Pan Jianhua, an education official in Changzhou, told NewsChina that Yuan and the school called administrators and emergency responders immediately.  

“Student suicides can affect a school’s reputation. [The school’s administration] probably discussed with local education authorities how to handle the situation before informing the parents,” Xiong said.  

Miao’s father pinned his hopes on the local education bureau, which promised to investigate the case on June 18. Three weeks later, their report repeated Yuan’s previously known ethics violations and demoted her as punishment, mentioning no additional details about Miao’s death. 

For such cases, Lei suggested an independent mediation committee made up of experts in fields such as education and law to more thoroughly analyze the case.  

Lessons Learned
Miao’s tragedy has drawn public attention to a surge in student suicides. “A lot of cases went unnoticed,” Xiong said. “Some parents might give up defending their rights, for example, or local authorities might cover them up.” 

Xiong has been calling for increased disclosure of data pertaining to youth suicide. “We should figure out the situation through data, then it’s the government’s duty to make changes.” 

Many of these tragedies could have been avoided, said Han Meiling, a therapist who has worked with more than 100 children with suicidal tendencies.  

“Some students are not equipped to deal with pressure, and once triggered can go to extremes. They need guidance in their living habits, understanding of the world and personal relationships. Most times you just need to help extricate them from their emotions so they can think more clearly.” 

Thirty-two students have committed suicide in Shanghai’s Pudong District since 2018, Li Guohua, vice director of Pudong and a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee member, wrote in a proposal for a parliamentary meeting, in which he cited “parent-child relationships and family issues, psychological issues, the internet, romantic relationships and domestic violence” as major reasons.  

But Xiong said scholastic pressure is the easiest one to identify. “Schools and parents make students do a lot of homework, which can easily cause anxiety and conflicts with parents and teachers. Some students go to extremes.” 

Lei said that until recently, there were no official laws that protected students in public schools from teacher abuse or placed limits on classroom discipline. Teachers would often punish students in whatever way they saw fit.  

In November 2019, China published a draft law on classroom discipline that said teachers could criticize students, limit their group participation and suspend them from class for up to a week. If passed, the law would prohibit teachers from delving out “excessive punishments” that include physical or verbal abuse, discrimination or corporal punishment such as prolonged standing in place or excessive copying of text by hand. But Lei questioned the draft’s effectiveness, as views on excessive punishment can vary according to region.  

“When a suicide occurs, issues surrounding education, law, administration and ethics get thrown together, making it difficult to identify the actual cause,” Xiong said. “After a while, people stop paying attention and the matter is dropped. We learn nothing this way.”  

Xiong called for education authorities and schools to take more responsibility and dig deeper into the underlying causes instead of avoiding them. “We can only figure out how to prevent suicide when we know the reasons behind it.”