San Marino recently emerged as the most proficient school district in the state’s assessment testing. A dozen San Marino High kids landed on the National Merit Scholarship list of semifinalists. A Supreme Court justice met with some students last night. And programs in athletics, music, drama and robotics flourish throughout the district.
At times, San Marino’s public school system appears to be an educational idyll. Until the occasional crack forms in the veneer.
The San Marino Police Department recently arrested a student on suspicion of working with an Arcadia kid in a bike theft ring, and selling parts on the Internet. In May, a girl who was buckling under academic pressure ran away from home and was ultimately tracked down in a seedy part of downtown Los Angeles.
Partnership for Awareness, a group of concerned parents and citizens that has been tackling critical issues with San Marino’s school kids for more than 30 years, doesn’t want to wait until problems surface to address them. That’s why it will convene a special event aimed solely for parents on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m. in San Marino High School’s Webb Theatre. “Not in Our Town!” throws a wide net in its subtitle: “Alcohol, Drugs, Stress and Mental Health Dangers Facing Our Adolescents in San Marino.”
“The title says it all: ‘Not in Our Town!’” said Dr. Alex Cherniss, SMUSD’s superintendent. “But the paradox is, it actually is in our town. Drugs. Alcohol. Students will be tempted. There is peer pressure. All kinds of things impact our kids. It’s important for parents to be aware of the reality facing our students.”
Cherniss will be one of four panelists at the discussion. He’ll be joined by Police Chief John Incontro, SMHS intervention counselor Laura Ives and SMHS Principal Mary Johnson.
Each will speak on a particular topic, and will also answer general questions from parents. Because of the sensitive nature of some of the subject matter, parents who don’t wish to stand and broach a topic publicly may fill out a question card at the event or send in a question ahead of time at partnershipforawareness.org.
“We’ve had motivational speakers and child development speakers,” said Su Viswanathan, programs co-chair for Partnership for Awareness. “Here, we’re trying to share with the community that sometimes things go wrong, but we have wonderful people in place. We all have access to them, and they’re more than willing to step up and help us with any challenges that we have.”
Four of those resources will be speaking at this event on areas of personal expertise.
DR. ALEX CHERNISS
San Marino’s superintendent says he is concerned about the “bubble” under which many of the community’s young people exist, and whether they’re being adequately prepared for the big, wide world beyond these sleepy streets.
“We don’t want our sheltered children to leave our community and go to college and be completely fish out of water when they assimilate with so many other students from so many other backgrounds,” Cherniss said. “To do that, they need breadth of experiences.”
Viswanathan observed that “we are a community of very proactive parents. That can be a detriment. Sometimes kids need to learn how to solve problems on their own. We have to allow them to sometimes fail. They’re going to go on to college [and be on their own].”
Said Cherniss: “We will always be able to send kids to good colleges. That’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is that they’re successful there and successful beyond college. We need to have conversations about real life, hardship, pitfalls. My fear is that they are going to go away to school and not be able to cope.”
San Marino’s police chief noted with relief that very few students come to the attention of the Police Department. He praised the “exceptional” cooperation between the school administration and the SMPD, the constructive programs available for students and a generally tight-knit network of parental support.
Still, his message will center on the importance of parents being vigilant about their kids’ activities and associations. Central to that, in this technological age, are their digital communications.
“My take on it is, keep being good parents and keep checking on your kids, and don’t be afraid to do that,” said Incontro, who guided two sons through the teenage years. “I want to let them know you’re not being a snitch, you’re just protecting your child and ensuring that the school maintains its outstanding stature.”
That means periodically and randomly checking electronic devices, according to the chief.
“I think parents need to start off with a conversation when they give them the smartphone: ‘These are the rules. As you age and mature, as you give examples of responsibility, you get more freedom,’” Incontro said. “[Kids] don’t have constitutional rights for you not to look at their phones. You have the right to do so and you should exercise that right.”
Ning Wu, a Partnership for Awareness program co-chair, noted that “what you think might be great may not be great. Sometimes kids can be pretty good at hiding their emotions. With the Internet today, they can be seeking help in the wrong places.”
So vigilance and awareness of the digital realm are critical.
Incontro will stress an unpleasant alternative: consequences. “If your child has made a decision to commit a crime, then we’re going to follow through with filing and support of prosecution,” he said. “And if you’re worried about your child not getting into the right college, well, he or she is not, because this will have a detrimental effect. I have to treat everyone’s child equally, regardless of social status and economic level.”
The counselor handles student support services at the high school, and recently acquired state certification as an alcohol and drug specialist. In this discussion, Ives will address risk factors and resources: “signs and symptoms to look for in your child or in other teens, and what to do if you suspect there is someone who is getting involved with risky behaviors — drugs or alcohol — and who to go to.”
“I also want to focus on what we can do so that the teens build in protect factors to help them be more resilient,” she continued. “… Let’s say something negative happens: they fail a test or break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. How do you deal with that obstacle in a healthy way? What can we do to prepare them so they won’t turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms?”
Ives is aware that she is usually called on when a student is encountering difficulties, but she wants to get out the message that a lot of her work is proactive. Link Crew is one such example, providing freshmen with junior and senior mentors who work with them throughout the school year.
Of San Marino, Ives said, “It’s very difficult here because there’s no profile of a student who could be at risk. You can’t rule anyone out. It could be someone with too many [advanced-placement] classes and too much academic pressure. To identify them is going to take the whole community coming together.”
San Marino High’s principal will concentrate on mental health and peer pressure, as well as issues of social media and online activity.
“Inappropriate exchanges,” Johnson said. “Saying something online that can’t be retracted, and that is actually illegal and threatening.”
“Sexting,” she added. “Believe it or not, some of our pure-as-the-driven-snow students thought that was OK. They think their boyfriend is the source of all love and hope in the world, and it turns out very badly.”
At a recent meeting to prepare for this event, some of the Partnership for Awareness people were parents of 2nd-graders. Johnson realized she didn’t want to generate undue alarm.
“Most kids are very trustworthy, and I want to bring some balance into this picture,” she said later. “This is not some cesspool at the high school of drugs and alcohol and mental health issues.
“But we have fully loaded resources ready to go when there are problems. We have fabulous counselors, specialists, school psychologist, law enforcement that is just a heartbeat away. We want to make sure they know that this is a safe place and that they’re a partner in maintaining vigilance.”
Admission to “Not in Our Town!” is free for supporters of Partnership for Awareness. A $10 donation is suggested for all others. The event is for parents only. A simultaneous translation into Mandarin will be available. To submit questions to the panel or for more information, visit partnershipforawareness.org.