Yesterday's class, today's reality

About six and half years ago, back in October of 2013, I wrote a commentary addressing the lashing that St. Joseph-Ogden High School was taking from news outlets that week after a story broke that teachers were holding "death panels". Most of the attention was quite negative and tabloid speculation.

Who could have remotely imagine that the critical hypothetical event discussed in a sociology class would one day be a very real issue for governments around the globe and the doctors feverishly battling a pandemic.

Sociology Class At SJO Exposes Biases Beyond The Classroom

I remember an assignment in high school, probably as many adults my age, based on the crash of Uruguayan Flight 571 back in 1972. The story of the survivors was later recounted in the book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and brought to cinematic life in 1976, my freshman year of high school.

As part of our assignment, we had to choose, as did the survivors of the crash, to become cannibals to survive or perish from malnutrition and exposure in a similar crash. As the source for food became scarce we had to decide who among the survivors would be sacrificed with dignity and heartbreaking regret to provide protein for the next several days worth of meals.

"The local hospital has enough machines to support six people. That means four people are not going to live. You must decide from the information below which six will survive."
After the initial joking and comical outbursts typical of high school juniors and seniors, the conversation turned serious. Our teacher guided the class through a conversation where each student eventually examined their moral beliefs, will to survive and sacrifice, and the emotional toll it could and likely would take years after rescue.

In 1978, it was our Kobayashi Maru and from other accounts, high school students around the country are given similar no-win or not-everyone wins situations. How many of you completed a similar assignment?

According to several comments posted to a local television station’s Facebook wall, previous classes at St. Joseph-Ogden High School (SJO), have pondered similar dilemmas over decades. Recently, the classroom lesson has gain overnight national attention. However, contrary to reports on other websites, the students are not making actual life or death decisions.

Hats off to The Leader, the community’s weekly newspaper, who simply headlined their story: "School Assignment Cause Controversy". Other news agencies were not so benign.

Nudged into the spotlight by after the parent of one student reportedly posted her objections to the classroom lesson on social network page, Fox News and even former presidential candidate Sarah Palin chimed in on what has been dubbed the "Death Panel", a term originating back in 2009 while the Affordable Care Act was in its infancy. Nearly every media outlet reporting on the assignment for the Sociology class could not resist assigning a sensational, gutter press headline to their stories or blog posts.

"Teacher Makes Students Decide Who Lives, Who Dies"

"Ghastly: Students Decide Who Lives, Who Dies In Death Panel Discussion"

"Illinois High School Students Given Death Panel Assignment"

"Death Panel Assignment In IL High School"

First of all, calling it a "Death Panel" by the reporting outlets is illogical. But, those outlets reporting on the issue were more interested in sensationalizing than reporting.

Those who penning the headlines obviously did not graduate from SJO, a school with a Prairie State Achievement Exam score of 66.7, second highest within a 20-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana, or Mahomet-Seymour topping the list at 71.1%. The word panel, by definition, is a group of people.

The assignment was for each individual student, not a party of two or more students working together, to complete the survey handed out by the teacher.

The assignment read:

"The following ten people have a problem. They are all in desperate need of kidney dialysis. Unless they receive this procedure they will die. The local hospital has enough machines to support six people. That means four people are not going to live. You must decide from the information below which six will survive. Next to each person’s short biography there is a line where you place a score. Put the people in order using 1-10, 1 being the person you want to save first and 10 being the person you would save last. You are only to use the information provided."

In the bio section, students learn about the ten individual in need of medical attention, six men and four women, ages 9 to 65 and their background, which included ethnicity and profession (even someone in the oldest of them all). Four of the individuals were married with children and one was a single-mom with a 3-year-old. After students completed their ranking, the teacher, whose has not been identified, and the class normally discussed the choices that were made.

And no, the results are not tabulated and shipped off to Washington D.C., Mr. Obama at the White House or any government agency using abbreviations such as NSA, CIA or DIA to be used to form public policy, the next great purge or as data for some ultra-secret, right/left wing extremist group.

Brian Brooks, principal at the high school, explained the assignment for the class for juniors and seniors, to Lennie Jarratt, author of the post on

"The purpose of the assignment is to educate students about social values and how people in our society unfortunately create biases based off of professions, race, gender, etc. The teacher’s goal is to educate students in the fact that these social value biases exist ..."

Among sporadic criticism, there has been overwhelming support in the more than 360 comments about the assignment in the comment section on the Facebook post by WCIA Channel 3 earlier yesterday.

Tracy Wright wrote: "I see the irony of this situation being that it is being referred to as the "death penalty" assignment. Nowhere in the assignment is anyone assigning death, as the circumstances of the assignment assume death was inevitable without the use of medical treatment... the assignment is to determine whom gets medical treatment to save the individual- not the same ... what a great assignment and I applaud the teacher's effort at making today's students think."

Later, Sherri Morgan added: "Great assignment in critical thinking. Real life scenarios. He is not passing along his opinions. He is opening up their minds."

"I believe if the teacher was trying to convey to his students the potentially serious consequences social bias can have on individuals, this could be an excellant excercise [sic] to guide young minds to ponder this issue," wrote William Marshall.

Ignoring posts about Palin’s comments, Obamacare and those likening the list to the future of the Affordable Care Act, most detractors took issue with the age group required to complete the assignment. Most, either for lack of knowledge or desire to add a little sensationalism of their own, incorrectly assumed the students are younger than 15 years of age. The class is an elective for juniors and seniors, making the actual ages of the students between 15 or older.

Heather Lian stated: "This assignment was for 14 year olds...and to teach a 14 year old that it is okay to put a number value on someone's life based on race, age, and occupation is wrong, no matter what political party you're affiliated with."

"Disgusting!!!!" Jamie Denham posted in opposition to the assignment. "We dont [sic] want our young people to think in those terms!!! If you condone this then they will think that mindset is the norm!!!"

"Is it okay to put a number value on someone’s life at the age of 14 -- or at any age?"

Like it or not, our lives are simply a numbered value. There are a select group of mathematicians called actuaries who earn a comfortable living assigning every human life a numerical value that in the case of health care has determined who lives and who dies. They decide how credit worthy a citizen is, interest rate for loan note or mortgage and premiums for automobile insurance.

As Ms. Lian is apparently unaware of, there is an entire, vibrant industry that puts a number value based on not only age, race and occupation, but also the street someone lives on, the number of miles they drive a year and how many times they make a late credit card payment.

The greater lesson for the students of the sociology class comes not from the assignment, but bias held by those who are critical of the classroom task. With their own prejudices rampant and unchecked, their incoherent posts on message boards around the web, broadcast the fear of their generation as well as represents the unbridled insecurity representative of their social class.

They fear, armed with knowledge and fewer prejudices as baggage, students who are taught to think and reason will some day live long and prosper on their voyages through life. They fear you will go where no one has gone before. But most of all, deep down inside, they fear that possibly in the future, you will choose a 23-year-old single mom who earns a living from prostitution over them for the last spot on a dialysis list.

Clark Brooks, Publisher

Yesterday, President Donald Trump, no doubt taking heat from business leaders and investors who are watching profits tumble in to an abyss and losing loyal followers in the face of his seemingly lack of leadership while clawing desperately for public approval,indicated that he wants end the self-isolation protocol he was pushing a little more than a week ago as soon as possible.

A CNN article said, "While the guidelines on self-isolating may still be extended, Trump said Monday he was eager to lift them so businesses could begin operating again and employees can return to work. The mitigation measures would not last into the summer, he said.

"I'm not looking at months, I'll tell you right now," Trump said, according to the CNN article. "We're going to open up our country.""

Meanwhile in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made it clear, despite having more than 700 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in his state, is resisting issuing a shelter-in-place order as Illinois, California and other states have done to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and control the infection rate so hospitals will be able treat severe cases of the infection.

Experts in epidemiology, infectious diseases, microbiologist, virologists and behavior biologists for weeks have recommended that Europe and USA observe self-isolation to avoid the spread of this particularly nasty strain that attacks the upper respiratory system. Italy, who ignored the advice until it was too late, now has more than 69,000 confirmed cases and has lost 6,820 of its citizens to the disease. Their number of deaths is nearly twice that of China where the virus originated.

Yet, in 180º turn from more than a week ago, President Trump now wants America to get back to work. Regardless of the number of lives the coronavirus could leave in its wake, a number estimated close to one million American lives by most predictive models, he want to kickstart the economy which has taken a severe hit with unemployment rising and thousands of people in the service industry scrambling to make ends meet. The human cost is real as demonstrated in China, Italy, Spain and potentially the UK, who is looking equally devastating losses.

Like it or not, as I wrote then and clearly evident in the news today, our lives are simply a number value, insignificant to the wealthy and easily subtracted. Easily sacrificed.

Looks like class isn't out just yet.