Deadly School Stampede Renews Calls for Scheduling Reform
A deadly break period stampede at a middle school in central China killed one student and injured five others this week, bringing renewed scrutiny to China’s overpacked, tightly managed class schedules.
The stampede took place Monday at Xinghua Middle School in Wuzhi County, Henan province, as 7th and 8th graders rushed to the bathroom between midterm exams, according to an incident report issued by the Wuzhi County government. One student died in the crush, while another was reported to be in critical condition. Four more students were hospitalized with minor injuries.
Staff at Wuzhi No. 2 People’s Hospital declined Sixth Tone’s request for comment Wednesday. A staff member at Wuzhi County People’s Hospital referred questions about the injured students to the county’s publicity authorities.
Wang Liyong, a representative of Wuzhi County’s publicity department, told Sixth Tone the cause of the incident is still under investigation, and that it was the first such stampede at one of the county’s schools. He declined to provide information about the status of the injured students.
In its incident report, the county said it would conduct a full investigation into the stampede and would “deal with the relevant responsible parties seriously, in accordance with the law.” It also promised to carry out a comprehensive effort to identify and address hidden risks in its schools.
In the meantime, the stampede has resurfaced a perennial topic in Chinese media: overstretched students and insufficient class breaks.
These problems received widespread attention in late October, after a video of a teacher complaining that her students spent recess indoors went viral on Chinese social media. A related hashtag, “Elementary and middle school students barely have time to use the toilet,” has been viewed 270 million times.
Quiet breaks, in which students are kept indoors and under watch between classes, are a longstanding issue in Chinese educational circles. In a 2019 survey by China Youth Daily, three-quarters of parents said quiet breaks were common practice at their kids’ schools.
Although the country’s education authorities have made reducing student workloads a priority in recent years, schools have been slow to adapt, citing the risk of injury and parental concerns as reasons for keeping students at their desks.
In part, the problem is due to many schools’ unreasonable approach to student safety, says Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the China National Academy of Educational Sciences.
“In many cases, front-line teachers don’t have the authority needed to handle the responsibilities they’re saddled with,” Chu told Sixth Tone Wednesday. “Their responsibilities and rights are inconsistent, so there is no other solution except strict controls (on students).”
Many teachers believe not letting students leave the classroom is the simplest way to manage their safety, Chu added.
As for the stampede, Chu said a thorough investigation is needed, but if local authorities simply fire someone to calm down public opinion, it could end up compounding the recess problem.
“A fair, complete, and in-depth investigation must be conducted into this incident,” Chu said. “But it’s important to avoid handling it according to the ‘stability-maintenance’ playbook.”
(Header image: The entrance to Xinghua Middle School in Wuzhi County, Henan province. From Weibo)