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Student Safety Becomes Part of Debate on Later School Start Times

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shared his opinion about the benefits of later high-school start times earlier this fall, he brought national attention to the growing movement pushing for this change as a way to improve teens’ health and academic success.

He tweeted his support of later high school start times, saying it was common sense to “let teens sleep more, start school later.”

“To function at their most alert levels and to maintain the healthiest possible lifestyles, adolescents need more sleep and early start times at schools interfere with their natural circadian rhythms, making it almost impossible for them to get the rest they need,” Duncan stated in a Washington Post editorial.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D., a spokeswoman for Start School Later, told STN the health and safety of high school students is at the forefront of the organization’s mission to promote later school start times. Tied to teenagers’ physical health are additional safety risks that arise when young people must head to bus stops and schools in the dark predawn hours.

“Not only is it dangerous for sleep-deprived teens to be waiting on street corners before dawn — when very few other people are out and about — or walking/waiting on winding roads, often with no sidewalks or shoulders, but we’re putting some very young and inexperienced drivers out on the roads all day long, many of them sleep-deprived,” said Snider.

The only problem with this issue, she noted, is that it is very difficult to prove that any given accident was solely due to early school hours, as other factors might play a role. However, when schools move their start times later, car-crash rates go down, she said, and this is an issue that everyone should care about, not just parents of teenagers.

“We also know that early school start times and associated sleep deprivation are a factor in these accidents and that, unlike many other factors, they are one that we can fix,” Snider continued.

3 Deaths in the Dark This School Year

Since August, three teenagers have been struck and killed by motorists while attempting to get to school in the dark. On. Aug. 21, 17-year-old Enrique Hernandez was hit and killed on his way to school In Polk County, Fla. ­— becoming the second Tenoroc High School student to die walking on this road, which has no sidewalks or lighting. (It remains unclear why Hernandez walked on his third day of school, since he rode the bus the other two days.)

In October, 17-year-old Makinzy Smith was struck and killed by a passing motorist near his Rowan County, N.C., bus stop, while a 14-year-old Vineland, N.J., girl died in similar circumstances in early November. Both of these teens were crossing the road to their bus stops in the pitch dark.

Also, earlier this week, an 8-year-old boy in Augusta, Ga., was struck by a minivan who failed to stop for his school bus at 7:10 a.m. (sunrise was 7:11 a.m.) even though its lights were flashing. He remains in critical condition.

Snider acknowledged the frequency of these accidents, pointing out that the Start School Later homepage features several sad stories of children and teens who have been killed or injured while en route to school.

This is one reason why her organization is backing a Florida bill (HB 67) that would prohibit high schools from starting any earlier than 8 a.m. But the proposal has drawn the ire of many school districts, according to local reports.

Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley said his district moved high schools to an earlier start of 7:30 a.m. a few years ago to save money on bus fuel, drivers and maintenance — resulting in cost savings of approximately $2.7 million due to streamlined routes.

Bill sponsor Matt Gaetz responded that he has heard these arguments before, stating, “And what it so difficult for me to understand is how a school district would prioritize a bus ride over what happens to a kid when they get off the bus.”

Gaetz emphasized that he has science on his side and referred to studies indicating teenage brains have a difficult time going to sleep before midnight and the related sleep deprivation causes various mental and physical health problems. These studies also led U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan to endorse later high-school start times.

Snider added that the reason a statewide bill is necessary is because many school systems are unable to overcome pushback from vested interests who fear a change in school hours will disrupt their routines.

“Some people have objected to the bill because they believe the state should keep its hand out of education matters,” she explained. “This reflects a basic misunderstanding not only of the way education policy works but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the bill, which does not dictate hours to local schools, as they must still set their own schedules.”

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