DARIEN — At a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, students and members of the community urged local school officials to prioritize mental health over academic and athletic achievement, as the town considers how best to support its students after the loss of three high schoolers this spring.
Olivia Punishill, who is a senior and a student representative on the board, referred to the atmosphere at the high school as “a pressure cooker.” She said she had spoken to many juniors and sophomores who were worried about how their current emotions would affect their grades.
“Multiple students said to me that they feared that they were going to have to, quote, ‘put their emotions on the backburner’ to prepare themselves for exams,” said Punishill. “Our community prioritizing academics has now led to our students not prioritizing their own mental health.”
Punishill was not the only person at the meeting who highlighted the extraordinary pressure placed on students in Darien.
A parent, Joanna Walsh, referred to the “unrelenting pressure to achieve” and to be the best in academics, athletics, music and sports.
“Our children need an off-ramp, they need an escape hatch,” she said. “The compounding problem is that none of us are trained to help them.” Walsh urged additional training for teachers and staff and programs to teach students to ask for help during moments of emotional distress.
Theresa Vogt, a Darien resident, told board members that there has been a mental health crisis in Darien for years. She also called out the pressure placed on students and the district’s focus on athletic and academic performance.
“There’s no road map that says you need to take five AP classes in one year in order to achieve happiness in life,” said Vogt.
Punishill also expressed concern, based on what she said she had heard from other students, that the district’s response to the crisis was not consistent between classrooms. Some teachers were following normal lesson plans, others were giving students a free period and others were holding class discussions. Some athletic coaches had canceled practice and others had gone ahead.
“Students felt they were being bounced around from experience to experience with no consistency, and that is part of the reason that they did not feel comforted throughout the day,” said Punishill.
She also said that seniors had not received the same level of support given to underclassmen, despite the fact that some knew the students who died.
Sophomore Miller Ward told the board that teachers needed to be trained to avoid saying things to students like “you have a lot to live for” — something she referred to as “toxic positivity.” Ward said it was critical for people to speak directly about mental health rather than hiding it under euphemisms.
“We need a long term solution integrated into our daily life, not a tidal wave of crisis mitigation and not another seminar or talk,” said Ward. “Matthew and Hayden deserved more than what the school is providing for us for mental health.”
Board member Tara Ochman said she was disturbed by what the students and community members were saying about the culture of the district. She said she had also spoken with some of the students.
“There is a feeling of, ‘we talk, but then we go back to class.;’ And that dichotomy is really, really hard,” said Ochman.
Debating a Response
Jessica Welt, CEO and clinical director of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, spoke to the board about what the district should be doing in the coming days to respond to the crisis.
Welt said that, right now, the town and the district needed to focus on the acute, crisis-management phase of the response. She told CT Examiner that the Child Guidance Center had clinicians at the school since Saturday who would stay for the remainder of the week to help students and staff members.
“Right now it’s so common for people to just want answers. They want to understand – Why did this happen? How could this happen? And they want to feel like things that feel out of control are more understandable or in control. And so what we talk about with kids is just, how are they feeling and how are they reacting and helping them to process the range of emotions,” said Welt.
Scott McCarthy, the district’s program director of special education and student services, said that the district met over the weekend with Scott Newgass, a clinical social worker with the state Department of Education who works with districts on crisis response. He said the school was working with the state Department of Education, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to facilitate a crisis response that would continue for the rest of the school year and into the summer. McCarthy said that the response would include everything from establishing larger-scale supports to deciding how to handle final exams.
McCarthy said one of the biggest challenges was trying to find a balance between establishing normalcy and allowing students to process their grief. He said that the interventions work differently for different students, making it hard to find responses that help everyone.
“The same action that we take for one student can have a positive effect, and for another can have a negative effect. And when you look at it for 1400 … it’s challenging,” said McCarthy.
Welt said it was important right now to make sure that students had opportunities to come together in small groups and to have conversations. She said it was critical to make sure students knew there were alternatives to suicide, and to keep an eye on students who might be less likely to ask for help. She said the vast majority of those struggling would be able to return to a normal state fairly quickly.
“In the wake of a loss, and especially a sudden and unanticipated loss, there can be common reactions, and they are normal,” said Welt. “And for most people, they will pass and people will return to their pre- trauma or pre-loss level of functioning. And it’s the ones who don’t bounce back that we want to pay most attention to, to be able to get them to the right level of services that they may need.”
Ochman expressed concern about the remainder of the school week before the Memorial Day weekend, and said the district needed to have a plan to support students to navigate the service on Thursday and the upcoming holiday. McCarthy said the district was making plans to address events at the end of the week, and that they would incorporate feedback from students about the district’s response on Monday and Tuesday.
Board members also asked about how the district and the town would implement longer-term solutions heading into the summer and next year.
First Selectman Monica McNally told the board that she had met with the police department, the public health department, school Superintendent Alan Addley, the community fund and others. She said the town planned to have various representatives work on creating a task force to address mental health responses in the town. She asked that the board give the group time to start its work, and said she would reach out to the town of Greenwich for advice on its experience creating a “suicide postvention response team.”
Board members also discussed whether the town should hire someone to coordinate the efforts, with Board Chair David Dineen saying that the coordination would require “someone focusing 150% of their time on this.” He also expressed concern about burnout affecting the town and school employees, who, he said, also have to deal with their “day jobs.”
Welt, however, said she felt that a separate coordinator may not be necessary given the experience that the town’s police, EMS and mental health providers would bring to the task.
Ochman said the district needed to look at whether the schools had sufficient resources, including psychologists, on hand to keep up with the need. But Welt said that because the district was currently in crisis, the demand they were seeing now for services wouldn’t reflect the need in normal times. She did say that the district might want to consider the implementation of a school-based health center as a longer-term solution.
Student representative John Raskopf, a junior, told the board he thought the school could improve the way that student advisory groups are created, to ensure that students are matched with people who share similar interests. He also suggested changing the class schedule to allow for an advisory period or a daily mental health period.
At the end of the meeting, parent Roland Clough, who has worked with students in Bridgeport on violence reduction and healing from trauma, urged the community to “drop their guard” and be vulnerable rather than give in to the temptation to resolve the issue quickly. More than anything else, he said, it was critical to listen to the students.
“Our job is to make school a safe place, You can define it that simply and build off of that. Safety for a child means feeling valued, feeling seen, feeling like they belong. And when they are excluded, they don’t feel like they belong,” he said. “Don’t let the gravity overwhelm you. Because, it’s heavy — but our kids are going to show us the way if we just take their cues.”