French Teacher Suspended For Essay Assignment Justifying Suicide

A French educator sparks controversy with an essay assignment to adolescent students, asking them to contemplate and justify the suicide impulse--one 500,000 French youths act upon each year.

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School assignments are supposed to make students think critically, but what if the assignment involved pondering suicide? Parents in the Charente region of western France are outraged over an essay assigned to their 13- and 14-year-old children that instructed them to take the perspective of a teenager who has decided to commit suicide, asking them to justify the reasoning of the act by describing “the disgust you feel for yourself.” The teacher responsible at the Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard secondary school has been suspended pending an investigation and faces possible sanctions by public education authorities — though the stern reaction has hardly quelled the controversy the disturbing project provoked.

And for good reason: suicide is the second most frequent cause of death among people under the age of 25 in France. Experts say about 50,000 people aged 12-20 try to kill themselves each year, around 600 of whom succeed.

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The assignment was handed out in late October, but was only revealed in the Dec. 10 edition of regional paper Charente Libre. The news broke when parents wrote to the daily to complain about impressionable adolescents being told to adopt a first-person perspective of the suicidal impulse — and go into detail rationalizing the act of self-destruction.

“You’ve just turned 18 years old,” the protesting parents quoted the assignment. “You’ve decided to end your life. Your decision seems irrevocable. On a final impulse, you’ve decided to explain the reasons for your act. In creating a self-portrait, you describe the disgust you feel for yourself. Your text will re-examine some of the events of your life that have led to this feeling.”

The parents of students involved took the same tack in objecting to the assignment. “We’re disgusted that 13- and 14-year-old children could be given this kind of topic,” said one. Another was more moderate, noting, “We’re not in the habit of questioning what goes on in class, but there are limits.” A third feared what could happen if this assignment was allowed to skate by unquestioned: “What’s the next topic: ‘What do you feel when you’re shooting up?’”

The unidentified teacher is reportedly a 30-year-old man described as being respected and admired by both colleagues and students. Pupils in his class were quoted by the French press shrugging off the assignment as no big deal. And, on Tuesday, an association representing parents at the school issued a communiqué demanding the teacher’s “immediate return to his post for the good of our children” and denouncing the “excessive and inappropriate” attention and outcry to the essay assignment.

That earnest defense notwithstanding, the rising tragedy of youth suicide is already a grave enough concern in France that it seems most likely that outsiders will view the topic of the essay — not the reaction it provoked — as the inappropriate element in the controversy.

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