Opinions: Penticton school forces student to cover self-harm scars or face expulsion

Repression or expulsion

Penticton school forces student to cover self-harm scars or face expulsion

Megan Orr // Contributor

This week on, y tho?, apparently we are still trying to tell young women what they can and cannot wear to school. On Jan. 11, a Grade 9 student was sent home with a letter of assurance from her school, Penticton Secondary, in which she was ordered to wear long sleeve shirts to hide self-harm scars or risk facing possible expulsion.

The story was first covered on Feb. 5, by Castanet, a site dedicated to covering news in Kelowna and surrounding cities. Students and parents petitioned the school, and as reported by Global News the next day, “Administration later retracted the long-sleeve clothing requirement after an uproar from the student body.” Nonetheless, this issue is far from resolved.

The very least that can be said about this incident is that the school was in the wrong. Nowhere on the Penticton Secondary School website does it mention any dress code policies that specify hiding scars, though they do require that students “maintain a healthy lifestyle and attitude.” While this problem could arguably be a misunderstanding, dress code violations are a hot button issue in popular media. However, this goes beyond what has become the standard “young men apparently find the female shoulder too arousing to focus” bullshit that we normally get. This action speaks to a perhaps more insidious intent: shaming people who struggle with their mental health.

Illustration by Erika Medina

According to Penticton Secondary’s own Code of Conduct, “Learning best occurs in a positive environment that is free of violence, intimidation, [and] harassment.” This environment is of course only achievable if the students all cover their scars and pretend everything is fine, right? It’s not harmful at all to try to demean and cover up someone’s struggle, rather than actually deal with the issue as a whole. In case the sarcasm doesn’t translate, it is quite problematic and stigmatizing to ask someone to cover their self-harm scars. The entire discussion around mental health now is focused on normalizing the conversation. With Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day having just passed on Feb. 1, people are increasingly encouraged to talk about their issues rather than hiding them as this letter of assurance was suggesting.

In Susanna Schrobsdorff’s 2016 Time cover story on the mental health of teenagers, self-harm is described as, “perhaps the most disturbing symptom of a broader psychological problem: a spectrum of angst that plagues 21st century teens.” Furthermore, as a January Guardian article explored, children are starting younger when they begin self-harming, some teachers seeing self-harm from children as young as three.

There are plenty of theories as to why depression and anxiety are on the rise in youth. Schrobsdorff mentions growing up in a post 9/11 state of fear, the recession, and the constant connectedness of social media as some possible culprits. The article focuses primarily on the dynamic between children struggling with mental illness and their parents. Schrobsdorff writes that the most important thing in dealing with someone who is self-harming is validating their feelings.

Perhaps Penticton Secondary could benefit from learning to listen rather than passing judgments. At the very least, they should want to be a part of the conversation.

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