Health & Family

Exam pressure may have contributed to teen's suicide

In many ways, Lucas Nixon of Rockingham had nerves of steel.

In archery competitions, he could fire his bow with incredible precision before game wardens and judges — not to mention hundreds of spectators. Some said he had Olympic potential.

But there was one test of skills that undid Lucas Nixon: North Carolina's end-of-course tests.

His parents believe it was pressure to succeed on one of these tests that led Lucas, their only child, to take his life June 1, the night before the tests were to begin.

He was 15 years old, finishing ninth grade. He would have started high school this month.

On the weekend of his death, Lucas had been engaged in typical outdoor activities — fishing at the coast with an uncle Saturday, fishing in the river with his parents Sunday after church.

“That child lived a happy life,” said Donna Nixon, his mom.

The only thing troubling him were the year-end exams that test kids' command of course material that were coming up the following week at school.

But that was nothing new. He'd suffered test anxiety since the first end-of-grade exams, in third grade.

By junior high, though, he was feeling the heat of those tests more intensely.

He'd told his parents that if he did poorly on an end-of-course test he would not only be required to retake the test. He'd been told he'd have to attend summer school and might not be able to enter high school — despite a solid B average — until he passed these exams.

On the night of his death, he had been shadow boxing with his dad, Scott Nixon, in the kitchen, eating cereal from a glass. His dad made him a bowl of Oodles of Noodles and they watched TV in the living room.

At about 8:45 p.m., Lucas went to his room and his parents to theirs.

Scott Nixon, who works for a company that digs rock quarries, hits the road at 4 a.m. most Mondays. But before he went to sleep, he called the boy on his cell, even though he was just across the hall. It was a funny family tradition.

“Lucas said he loved me and told me to remember to wake him up before I left,” Scott Nixon said. “I never left this house without waking him up, no matter how early, to hug his neck and tell him that I love him.”

Five minutes later, the Nixons heard the blast of a gunshot from Lucas' room.

They believe their son, faced with the possibility of failing his end of course exam, convinced himself this was his only way out.

“He snapped,” said Donna Nixon, who cradled the boy in her arms helplessly, trying to stop the bleeding until the ambulance arrived.

Richmond County schools Superintendent George Norris said the entire system was deeply saddened by Lucas' death.

He said his district, like any other, wants children to do well on the tests, which keep the schools accountable for their performance.

“But we're not about putting undue pressure on kids,” he said. “I don't know anyone anywhere who is.”

Not in theory, to be sure.

But by tying test scores to teacher bonuses, and by making test results such a critical — albeit inaccurate — assessment of school performance, we have created a pressure cooker environment for administrators, teachers — and for kids.

Can every child's performance be measured by a single test?

Lucas Nixon decided he couldn't bear to find out.