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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Sean A. Valles, PhD
California just passed two laws that advance health in schools in ways that might not seem intuitive: pushing middle school and high school start times to after 8am, and banning school districts from “lunch shaming” that treats students differently based on whether they have unpaid school lunch debt. These laws are part of a collection of diverse efforts to make U.S. schools healthier places. The fact that some of these efforts have been led by students themselves is especially heartening.
Bioethics of school policies
The two new laws in California are worthy of attention in a bioethics blog because U.S. schools are, for many students and in many ways, unhealthy places. Not simply because they are crowded spaces infamous for spreading coughs and colds (and stress). For many students, they are also places of food insecurity, social stigma, or even fear of violence. Those problems also shed light on larger problems in society. Even as a child in Los Angeles, I grasped that the local high school having a metal detector at the door signified that something much bigger had gone horribly wrong in my community. Most student problems have their roots outside the school walls, but we can at least do our best to design schools to contend with the difficult realities of young people’s lives.
There is now compelling evidence that later start times for schools are better for adolescent health than early morning ones. As pointed out in one review of the research, adolescents’ bedtimes seem to be more or less independent of when school starts in the morning, partly due to biological clock rhythms changing during puberty. Students forced to begin school early in the morning suffer all of the resulting harms of insufficient sleep (most readers are surely aware that insufficient sleep is bad for physical and mental well-being). This change is surprising in part because the American Academy of Pediatrics has, with limited success until now, been pushing for later school start times, insisting that school start times should facilitate the 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep appropriate for adolescent biology. It will be a difficult schedule transition for some California schools and families/guardians to adjust to, but the health rationale remains powerful.
Stigmatizing and manipulating students are problems, not solutions
It is also encouraging to see California legislate against lunch shaming. Unless prohibited, U.S. schools have the freedom to intentionally or incidentally shame students for being unable to afford their lunch meals. They have done so by giving indebted students inferior meals, marking the students with wristbands or stamps, etc. This is a serious health matter because imposing a stigmatized status upon a child, or even just amplifying an existing one, is a harmful act. Research is quite clear that stigma (“the co-occurrence of labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination in a context in which power is exercised”) is a powerful and pervasive cause of health injustices. Stigma stresses bodies, socially controls people, and excludes them from social opportunities and resources available to others. Being a child without enough money to pay for lunch is quite hard enough, without one’s school officials metaphorically painting a target on one’s back.
The desirability of the California law gets clearer when one looks at a policy that goes in the opposite direction. In a widely-criticized lurch backwards, a newly-created policy in a New Jersey school district gives discretion to principals to ban students with lunch debt from participating in extracurricular activities. Which students? Under which circumstances? What goals are achieved by such exclusions? Certainly banning students from soccer practice or chess club doesn’t make money magically appear in their parents’ pockets. The policy is a setback, but I am encouraged by the backlash that gives a new sense of clarity to how remarkably regressive this policy is in light of the opposite trend.
Student advocacy should be welcomed
Most encouraging to me is the fact that students are advocating for themselves and the health of their schools. I am glad that the American Academy of Pediatrics and some California state legislators are advocating for healthier schools, but I have argued at length elsewhere that it is preferable to empower people advocate for themselves. And so students are. For instance, they have been at the forefront of a series of lobbying efforts (successful in Oregon and Utah) to get mental sick days recognized as legitimate reasons for missing school.
It is no coincidence that this push to create space for “mental health days” comes in the middle of a period of worsening mental health of young people in the U.S. Deaths from suicides just replaced deaths from homicides as the second leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds (deaths from traffic accidents are down, but still exceed both). And homicides are also a target of student activism; after the Parkland school shooting, young people became the unexpected leaders of a new wave of gun control activism.
The late 2010s have been a time of disorienting rapid change, but I suspect that future historians will highlight one global social phenomenon: young people demanding a better world. The most prominent example is the rise of young climate change activists around the world—Greta Thunberg being the most famous—demanding action with a new sense of clarity and resolve. As I write this, Teen Vogue’s website teases an article with a link saying “Why Homeless Advocates Aren’t Happy With the 2020 Presidential Candidates” and an op-ed on radical labor organizing among nail salon workers.
Better health through better spaces
Even though lunch shaming, poor mental health, exhaustion and all sorts of other health problems still tragically afflict young people in schools, I am optimistic because it really does feel that the winds have shifted—thanks in large part to student activists, unhealthy schools are finally getting reforms they have long needed. As I argue at length in the book Philosophy of Population Health, health depends not just on whether we have good medical care, but also on whether the places where we live our everyday lives have been thoughtfully designed to support good health.
Sean A. Valles, PhD, is an Associate Professor with an appointment in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is author of the 2018 book, Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. He is also Director of the MSU Science and Society @ State Program, supporting interdisciplinary faculty collaborations that join the humanities, arts, and sciences.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Valles: Recognizing Menstrual Supplies as Basic Health Necessities: The Bioethics of #FreePeriods; Trump’s Attempt to Reignite the Coal Industry Is Another Health Policy Blunder; Politics and the Other Lead Poisoning: The Public Health Ethics of Gun Violence; Climate Change and Medical Risk