Would a Cancer Patient Be Denied?

An anorexic student is being denied her title as valedictorian because of a strict attendance policy. She was absent for seeking inpatient treatment for anorexia nervosa.

Karen Scherr is the top academic student in her class at Kingwood High School in the Houston area, and she has been for the past four years. But when the 18-year-old receives her diploma this month, she’ll do so without the title just about everyone expected her to have: valedictorian.

…Scherr’s been in the Kingwood school system since kindergarten. But she wasn’t enrolled in her high school on that 20th day of her junior year.

Instead, she was in a treatment facility seeking help for the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. “I was sick. That’s part of the disorder,” said Scherr. “It’s a mental disease.” While the school warned the Scherr family of their strict attendance policy, her parents made the decision to keep her hospitalized in Oklahoma until her medical treatment was complete a few weeks later.

Through it all, she kept up her class work and stayed at the top of her class despite her illness.

…Scherr says she made the right choice to miss school to seek treatment. “That was the best decision. I don’t regret it at all. It was a choice made with input from my parents and doctors. I’m ok with it.”

School officials insist they won’t change their minds, saying it would be unfair to retroactively change the rules at the end of the school year.

Thanks, Sara.

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19 comments for “Would a Cancer Patient Be Denied?

  1. May 17, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    That is outrageous. It promotes the myth that mental illness lacks a biological basis, that somehow this is a character defect not a “real illness”.

    The young woman is to be commended for continuing to educate herself in the hospital, not punished for an arbitrary rule.

  2. May 17, 2005 at 8:31 pm

    I guess the school feels it’s OK to completely disregard the intent of the rule, I’m glad to see the person they’d bestow the honor on is fighting on Scherr’s side.

    The most impressive things for this case is the fact that despite fighting what is frequently a debilitating disease that required an in-patient stay, are the facts she recovered and still managed to maintain a gpa that makes her eligible to be valedictorian.

  3. May 17, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    Well, according to what the school says, yes, a cancer patient would be denied, and I don’t have a problem with that. The executed their policy fairly. They even alerted the student and her parents that if she misses the attendance mark, should would not be valedictorian. They knowingly took that chance knowing the possible outcome. She didn’t become valedictorian. In my opinion, the school was fair. Now, what I would like to see is the school board revisit this policy and consider that there might be certain situations (such as a severe illness) and the student maintains their honor status, that the still are eligible to get that valedictorian title. But back to Ms. Scherr, she was right, she made the best possible decision. Because her health is far more important than a title that may or may not get you into that brand name school.

  4. May 17, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    You just have to know Kingwood. Imagine the whitest, most uptight, conservative Houston suburb. Now multiply those qualities by about 10, and you’re nearly there.

  5. May 17, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    I read that earlier and said “That is so much bullshit!!” So it’s okay to deny to student what has been earned because she was sick??? This is the kid that kept up with her work while in in-patient treatment. Come on this is insane!!

  6. May 17, 2005 at 9:02 pm

    I’m just amazed that these kids are so upfront about their eating disorders. I told everyone that I was hospitalized for a “stomach disorder.” I let them think that I had some physical problem that had made me so skinny and then caused me to disappear off to the hospital for a month.

    I guess I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about this. It’s a really badly-written rule, and the officials are stupid to enforce it. But this kid sounds like a lovely, accomplished, well-adjusted person, and I’m sure that in the long run it won’t matter whether she got her high school gold star.

  7. sara
    May 17, 2005 at 10:17 pm

    But this kid sounds like a lovely, accomplished, well-adjusted person, and I’m sure that in the long run it won’t matter whether she got her high school gold star.

    Maybe, but do you know how many associations/colleges/scholarship programs give scholarships based on the title valedictorian alone? A LOT.

    I’m sure she’ll have no problem getting into college nor funding it, but I still think the school’s decision is poor. There are greater issues here than enforcing some policy. The messages this decision sends to its students make my skin crawl.

  8. sara
    May 17, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    this school’s decision, i mean. argh, grammar. sorry, i had beer, and it was good.

  9. May 18, 2005 at 12:21 am

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  10. tas
    May 18, 2005 at 5:33 am

    Shame is dead, long live shame…

  11. May 18, 2005 at 10:33 am

    It’s a good thing that she was regarded as highly by her parents as she was. If she’d had different parents, they may have pushed her to go to school at the expense of her health. The school followed it’s policy, but it’s policy needs an exception. Kids who are sick shouldn’t be punished for taking care of themselves.

  12. May 18, 2005 at 11:31 am

    Oh, I hate those “rules” that people apply saying “it wouldn’t be fair.” At my college, I was denied the title “magma cum laude” (or was it sigma? The highest) because I hadn’t taken the correct amount of hours AT THAT SCHOOL. I transferred in from another school– if I had taken one more semester I could have gotten it but who takes an extra semester of college when they don’t have to?!?! But the grades I transferred in were just as high (mostly As from the start.) So it’s not like transferring wiped clean a slate that had been bad before. And I found out on the day I picked up my cap & gown– I was shocked and surprised. It doesn’t mean anything in the long run, but it was a nice little thing that I was denied for a really bogus reason.

    But they don’t get my alumni money. Those jerks. :)

  13. May 18, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Sally: I am glad that the young women are coming out of the closet about this. Ghettoizing oneself because one has a mental illness only makes it harder on those who might need treatment.

    Perhaps we should organize a drive to honor Scherr as “America’s Valedictorian” based on her extra efforts and her commitment to facing up to what she has and still making good grades. If Houston won’t honor her, we still can.

  14. michelle
    May 18, 2005 at 7:18 pm

    Eating diseases at not a mental illness at all but a symptom of social disease. They are a healthy, sane (if overambitious) response to a crazy world that pushes women to erase themselves as they grow more powerful. Anorexics are good, too good at fulfilling their expected feminine role – reduce your self, your presence, make amends for having too much power, hate female flesh, and never forget that you’re not worthy enough for the best food and greatest helpings. There is evidence that ordinary dieting which seeks to override the body’s natural weight level, causes physiological changes that cause anorexia. I believe Naomi Wolf had a chapter on this in The Beauty Myth.

  15. May 18, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    I’m certainly not about to defend stigma, Joel, but I think that eating disorders work differently than other mental illnesses, and I think a lot of attempts to destigmitize anorexia kind of backfire. I made a conscious choice to be anorexic, and then I carefully studied articles and books about anorexia for hints. Those articles and books were supposed to destigmitize the illness, but they just provided me with a really effective tutorial. (Nowadays pro-ana websites will do that work for you.) I got much worse after I was hospitalized and forced to do group therapy, because I competed with other anorexics and learned starving strategies from them. A lot of ED experts think that eating disorders are, in a sense, contagious: a girl who is exposed to them is much more likely to develop one. If you have a pressure cooker school in which both the valedictorian and the editor of the newspaper announce they’ve been anorexic, it seems pretty likely that students will associate anorexia with achievement. And I don’t think that’s a great thing.

  16. May 20, 2005 at 11:10 pm

    Sally, I am trying to see what I said that merited that argument.

  17. May 20, 2005 at 11:17 pm

    Sally: Do you think that depressives and bipolars who choose to attempt suicide never read The Bell Jar or other books on suicide — all meant to help people understand their disease — with a mind to finding ways to kill themselves? That cutters don’t try to understand where the veins are? That none of these ~choose~ on some level to allow their disease to manifest itself in a particular way? (Among depressives and bipolars, there is talk about slow ways and fast ways to die. Neglecting your health is a slow way. Shooting yourself is a fast way. You can get all the information you need for commiting either form on the Internet, then put it into practice. We who suffer from mood disorders are not entirely at a want for control of our destinies.)

    Ask yourself why you are trying to separate your disease from these others? Are you trying to make yourself untreatable? Are you trying to say that your disease is “special”? Are you clinging to some myth about mental illness because you think you have to?

    It’s just a disease. Don’t worship it or let it destroy your self-confidence.

  18. May 21, 2005 at 10:52 am

    I don’t think that eating disorders or cutting are mental illnesses in the way that depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar are. That explains, I think, why rates of true mental illness remain pretty steady, while eating disorder rates are extremely unstable. I’m convinced that there’s a biological basis for eating disorders (and it’s probably related to the biological basis for cutting: there’s a lot of similarity and overlap between the two), but the actual disorders are highly culturally and situationally specific. Women who are not exposed to eating disorders are a lot less likely to develop them. And women who are not pressured to diet very rarely do.

    You can cut it out with the condescension, by the way.

  19. May 21, 2005 at 11:04 am

    I just read your comment 16, Joel, and all I can say is that I’m totally confused. You said that you were glad that the students were “coming out of the closet.” I tried to explain why I think that’s a more mixed thing than it might seem to someone coming from a traditional mental illness perspective. And I think a lot of harm has been done to anorexics by treating the disease like a traditional mental illness, rather than looking at its specific dynamics. I didn’t think I was attacking you: I thought I was expressing an opinion about something that I actually know a bit about.

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