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Published October 01, 2010, 12:00 AM

Panelists discuss students' stresses

Documentary raises questions about society's demands on today's kids
Devon Marvin lost her life “because of a stupid math test.”

By: Wendy Reuer, INFORUM

Devon Marvin lost her life “because of a stupid math test.”

It’s the reason her mother gives for the 13-year-old’s suicide in 2008. During the movie “Race to Nowhere,” her mother begins to cry after recalling the months that led to her daughter’s death, and finding no signs, no clues that anyone could have seen.

“Race to Nowhere,” a documentary by Vicki Abeles, was shown Thursday night at the Fargo Theatre. The movie is meant to raise questions about society’s demands on today’s students, educators and parents, with students being pressured so much to succeed that they are literally in a race to nowhere.

Marvin was a neighbor to Abeles, but Abeles had already seen the signs of pressure her own three children were feeling from schoolwork. It was showing not only in Abeles’ teenage daughter but in her fourth-grade son, who was overwhelmed with homework nearly every night.

In Marvin’s case, her mother said Devon had failed a math test, even though she worked hard to succeed. It was an internalization of that failure that may have led to Devon’s suicide.

After the movie, which tells the story of parents, students, teachers, psychologists and college educators, there was a panel discussion inside the theater featuring similar demographics.

Fargo South High School seniors Taylor Gess and Garret Zastoupil and Moorhead High School senior Seiko Shastri said they could identify with a lot of the issues identified in the movie. These included not getting enough sleep between homework and extracurricular activities.

“If I got six hours of sleep I would be ecstatic and I would need sleeping pills to do it,” Gess said.

She and Shastri stressed that they don’t feel the pressure from teachers like some students in the movie.

Deacon David Haney of Fargo Catholic Schools felt the movie was eye-opening.

"I’m definitely going to listen, probably more than I have,” Haney said.

Although many in the audience seemed to relate to the stories told from high schools in New York and California, some on the panel still doubted the degree of similarity to schools and students in this area.

Debra Grosz of the Concordia College Education Department said she isn’t wholly convinced most students who are high achievers are unhappy.

“It’s tough, there’s pressure, but I think a lot of it’s self-induced,” she said.

Fargo Schools Superintendent Rick Buresh said the film’s points should be examined, but he didn’t think the experiences discussed by those in the film are necessarily encountered by students across the board in this area.

The film, the panel and the audience seemed to agree on one thing, however: displeasure in the weight of tests and the “measured” success the federal No Child Left Behind law has created since it was implemented in 2002.

Bill Marcil Jr. of Forum Communications Co. is a parent of three. As a member of the panel, Marcil drew applause for noting less homework could and should be done along with a shift of focus.

“Teachers aren’t the problem. The problem relies on society,” Marcil said.

The movie ends with suggestions for educators, including more recess and physical time in the day, less homework, and homework-free nights or weekends.

The movie asks parents to consider the pressure they may inadvertently place on the children, and instead suggests asking about the day and what happened.

“Balance, that’s really a key in this,” Buresh said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530