The two boys put on their school uniforms, left home and then killed themselves.
A 15-year-old leapt to his death at Times Square in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay; days before, he told his parents that he was unhappy at school.
This month, at least five students in Hong Kong took their own lives.
Another was stopped by authorities. She told her family that school pressures were just too overwhelming. She is 12.
It's the latest in a rash of suicides by students in Hong Kong. Thirty-five students took their own lives in 2016; one was just 11 years old. Between 2010 and 2014, Hong Kong saw an average of 23 student suicides a year, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Suicide Research and Prevention.
Hong Kong's education system is famously cutthroat, and experts compare it to a pressure cooker. The government's Territory-wide System Assessment system tests students regularly starting in third grade. Schools are judged on their kids' scores. Students are forced to compete for limited spots in the country's university system. At a hearing on the territory's education system, one fourth-grader compared going to school to going to prison. “In the classroom, I was not allowed to move, drink water, eat, go to the toilet, or talk,” Chan Yu-ling said at the hearing. “The teachers spent little time teaching. We spent most of our time doing mock exams.”
Cheung Siu-chung, a secondary school history teacher and member of the Hong Kong Professional Teaching Union, told Quartz that the suicides are “the accumulative effect of the education system.” “Under this education system, students are evaluated like stocks, and teachers are like fund managers who need to boost the stocks,” he said. “How can you expect students to not feel pressure?”
Children are now starting university earlier, thanks to a 2012 shift in the education system that sends students to college a year earlier. “Students are entering university at a younger age. They might not be mature and prepared enough to deal with challenges and lack the closer network present in secondary school, for example,” one expert told the South China Morning Post. Ten of the 22 students who committed suicide since the start of the current academic year were in university. (Between 2010 and 2014, the average was two.)
Experts say, too, that young children spend too much time online. “This generation grew up with the Internet. Although they are more connected, they also tend to look only at things they like. They might not understand complicated or different views on an issue. For anyone who sees things not fitting their taste, they could simply ‘unfriend’ them,” Lee Sing, a professor of psychiatry at Chinese University, told the South China Morning Post.
Less time with family, too, might be contributing to the problem. One expert noted that in most families, both parents work outside the home, leaving them with less time to spend with their families.
The Hong Kong Education Bureau is taking action. It announced new measures to combat the problem, including improved student counseling in schools, more seminars to alert teachers and parents to warning signs and a committee to research long-term fixes. Right now, most secondary schools have at least one social worker. But most secondary schools have more than 1,000 students, so their ability to interact one-on-one with children is limited.