Chancellor Kaya Henderson sketched a bleak statistical picture of life in DCPS middle schools at Tuesday’s D.C. Council hearing, including a chilling survey finding that 10 percent of the school system’s 4,000 eighth-graders have tried to kill themselves.

Henderson and other officials said they do not take the figure at face value. It is self-reported by students who filled out the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered last fall by OSSE. They said they regard it more as a reflection of the despair that often pervades their world, and of an online culture in which stories and images of teen suicide are readily accessible.

“They’re exposed to the Internet, to Facebook. They’re exposed to so many more things than we were,” said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley. “Things we didn’t think about until well in our adult years.”

But even allowing for the adolescent sense of drama and hyperbole, the figure is sobering.

“It’s very alarming,” Henderson said. “I think it is a generalized cry for help.”

It is also consistent with past findings on the survey, which is sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and administered by the District every two years. (High school students receive an expanded version.)

According to OSSE, self-reporting of attempted suicide by D.C. students has been consistently double the national average of 6.3 percent.

The survey has had some issues of its own. The 2009 results are considered questionable by CDC because they did not meet minimum sampling requirements. Some sub-groups in the student population were over- or under-represented in the respondent pool.

OSSE said Tuesday evening that the 2010 survey does not include public charter school students because many charter schools declined to participate. For that reason, OSSE excluded all charters from the survey.

Nevertheless, D.C. school officials came to the hearing, convened by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) with a litany of other depressing data points drawn from the risk behavior survey:

— 28.2 percent of eighth graders have had sexual intercourse

— 18.4 percent of sixth graders have missed school in the last 12 months because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school

— 14.2 percent of middle school students have had a drink of alcohol (more than a few sips) in the past 30 days

The academic data from ninth grade--culled by DCPS--reflects the desperate circumstances of many middle schoolers. Two of every five ninth graders repeat the grade. One in three fails Algebra I, and almost half who re-take it fail a second time.

Henderson said she is studying the possibility of a middle schools literacy initiative--essentially a crash effort to bring students up to grade level in reading before they reach high school. It would involve new training for teachers, who would infuse every course with reading instruction.

Henderson said she does not yet know how much such a program would cost, but that it may be the only way to increase the academic survival rates of ninth graders.

“It means possibly doubling down on our spending for that group of kids,” she said.

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