A class of 12-year-olds at the Louis-Bouland de Couloisy school in the Oise department in northern France were told by their French teacher to compose a suicide note as a writing assignment, according to a report in French daily Le Parisien on Friday.
“John wrote a letter to his wife before carrying out his plan. Devise that letter,” said the assignment, shown to Le Parisien, before presenting a fictional description of the couple’s life and the aftermath of the man’s suicide.
The exercise has disgusted some parents, who have questioned the wisdom of presenting such a sensitive subject to young teenagers at a difficult time in their development.
One father explained: “My daughter came home from school on Tuesday evening and announced to us that [for her homework] she had to put herself in the position of a man who had killed himself, and write his suicide note. It’s absurd!” said the man, whose name has been changed to Nicolas.
For its part, the school has refused to comment publicly, but did hold an information meeting for the parents of the pupils in question, on Thursday evening.
Schools inspector for the Oise department, Elisabeth Laporte, has opened an internal investigation, but cautioned against judgment.
“You have to put this in context,” she told Le Parisien. “The account was a humorous piece of writing which was the subject of an assignment. But undoubtedly it could appear inappropriate or insensitive,” she said.
Nonetheless, Nicolas and his wife have notified police about the incident. “In light of all the stories about suicide becoming more widespread among young people, I don’t see what’s so funny about it,” he said.
This is not the first occasion a French teacher has assigned a suicide note as a writing exercise. In December, a teacher in western France was suspended after she instructed a class of 13 and 14-year-olds to "describe your self-disgust" in a final letter.
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Reacting to this week's incident in Oise, child psychiatrist Stéphane Clerget said on Friday that while she understands the concerns of parents, the subject of suicide should not be treated as off-limits for young people.
"Their reactions reveal the anxiety that parents can have about the risk of suicide among adolescents. Must we never talk about suicide, though?" she told French daily Le Figaro.
"In particular, it's imperative that this kind of incident doesn't cover up the real causes of suicide among young people," Clerget said.