The medical evidence is clear — teens are suffering physical and mental health problems due to chronic sleep deprivation. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics and many other health organizations recommend starting classes at all middle and high schools at 8:30 am or later.
“We’ve known for decades that teenagers are not getting enough sleep,” says Rafael Pelayo, MD, a clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. “Senate Bill 328 [which would prohibit schools from starting that time] came out of presenting the strong evidence-based, peer-reviewed data to elected officials. Even the people opposed to the bill accept the science.”
So if everyone agrees that our teens need more sleep, why did California Governor Jerry Brown reject the bill last week? The main objection of teachers, school boards and ultimately Brown centers on giving the local community control of individual school decisions.
“We've stepped into this ongoing battle between state control and local control of schools,” Pelayo says. “But I don’t consider this a political issue. This is a public health issue. Hundreds of schools have already changed and they see the same result — kids are healthier and perform better. This is a matter of honoring kid’s biology. It doesn’t work to just say they should go to bed earlier.”
Pelayo’s push for later school start times is also inspired by his professional experiences. “My career as a sleep doctor began through my knowledge of adolescent sleep. During medical school, my research found a link between suicidal thinking and sleep problems in teenagers. I’ve been learning about poor sleep and mental health issues in teens since the 1980s.”
Despite this legislative setback, Pelayo plans to keep volunteering. For years, he’s been giving talks about sleep at many local high schools and middle schools. “Teenagers are interested in sleep apnea, their dreams and all aspects of sleep,” Pelayo says.
He’s also recently become a director of a national organization called Start School Later. Overall, he hopes to promote more education, research and funding for this issue.
"About 300 school districts have already mandated a later school start time," Pelayo says, adding that San Diego schools are planning to implement later start times by 2020. "If California had passed SB 328, it would have accelerated this process. Instead, we’ll have to do it piecemeal. And that’s too bad, since kids need sleep now."
But, Pelayo says, "This issue is not going away, it is actually gaining momentum."
Photo by Santiago Gomez