Steve Herrell: School start-time issue in Northampton will not just fade away

Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — At the conclusion of a five-year effort involving hundreds of people in Northampton, including psychologists, parents, pediatricians, sleep experts and students, and after seven forums and countless speeches and editorials, the Northampton School Committee on June 13, 2013, passed this resolution: “The School Committee directs the superintendent to implement a later start time at Northampton High School, with that later start time to be between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., and with that time to take effect no later than September 2014.”

This resolution, which passed 7-2, is clear and straightforward. It does not say the implementation is conditional on other factors, such as a change in the school bus schedules, the status of the budget or the start times of other schools. It simply states that the superintendent will implement the change, period.

In a deeply troublesome move, the committee, in a classic example of kicking the can down the road, last Thursday voted to rescind its resolution of last June.

In its place members voted in an insipid new resolution which “requests” the superintendent to gather and present more detailed information about school bus ridership (enough of that data has already been collected to make a decision) by next February. Worse, they are now under no obligation to actually effectuate a start-time change.

This is unacceptable. After all this time and work? Flying in the face of countless studies and evidence from school districts that have made this beneficial change? Flying in the face of two Ad Hoc Start Time Subcommittees, one in 2008, and another in 2013, recommending a start time of 8:30 and 8:15, respectively? Flying in the face of 235 parents and professionals who submitted a petition to the School Committee to make this change as soon as possible?

Are they listening to us?

The real problem is that no one in the School Department feels driven to find an answer. They hold a couple of meetings, can’t seem to figure it out and throw up their arms. They are paid to find real solutions by working earnestly — and I don’t think they have.

This is surprising because we have some dedicated, caring, intelligent school officials in Northampton. However, there is a lot of buck-passing as well as internal politics among some administrators who have their own agendas and schedules in mind. They claim that a move to a later start time at Northampton High will require extra expenditure, and they have not allocated the funds. However, there are no-cost plans, such as the one proposed by Brian Salzer, which could have been instituted this September, especially in combination with other innovative ideas, and compromise, on the part of everyone.

Society moves forward by compromise. No plan is perfect. But the current plan is worse.

Many other public school districts have been smart enough to handle obstacles and moved to more sensible start times for their students. What is wrong with us here? Are we less capable and less intelligent than we thought?

By taking this deplorable and offensive action, the School Committee has shot down its own credibility. It represents a continued disservice to students who struggle with sleep deprivation, depression, the increased threat of traffic accidents and sports injuries and other associated problems.

Stanford University’s sleep expert, William Dement, said, “Sending kids to school at 7 a.m. is the equivalent of sending an adult to work at 4 in the morning. It’s almost abusive to them.” Teens have biologically driven sleep patterns that keep them awake later and require more morning sleep. The absorption of information by a teenager’s brain is impaired by the lack of proper sleep.

Some officials have been saying they want to “put this issue to bed.” Is the goal to simply end the discussion and to get it off the table? No. The goal is not to put the issue to bed.

The goal is to do the right thing for our children. The goal is to consider the evidence and to make a good decision, as the School Committee had previously done, and stick to it. As Shakespeare said, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” If it takes a long time to work it out, so be it. That’s how important it is. The start-time issue will not go away.

A new set of NHS students and their parents will be coming down Elm Street to raise the issue again and again.

The Washington Post editorialized recently that the issue keeps surfacing in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It said, “The reason the idea won’t go away is that it makes too much sense. ... Every bit of scientific research and experience shows that teenagers have different sleep patterns and that later start times are beneficial to students, schools and the community.””

Steve Herrell lives in Northampton.