Stress, drugs and talkin’ goals.
Those were the topics of conversation at Partnership for Awareness’ “Not In Our Town” event last week in San Marino, as a panel of four local leaders spoke candidly about issues facing adolescents and challenged parents to re-calibrate their standards of academic expectations during a Q-and-A event co-chaired by Su Viswanathan and Ning Wu.
“I’m glad you’re here and we need your help,” San Marino Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss told about 100 parents gathered at San Marino High’s Webb Theater on Sept. 30. “We need your help with how you parent because it impacts your children and the lives of so many other children in the community.”
The quartet of Cherniss, SMHS Principal Mary Johnson, SMHS Intervention Counselor Laura Ives and San Marino Police Chief John Incontro sidestepped the usual Pollyanna and utilized the platform for a frank discussion on the realities of the dangerous behaviors being born on campus and in the home. Following an introductory speech lasting about 15 minutes each, the foursome fielded 11 anonymously written questions from the parents.
“I love the title of the evening, ‘Not in Our Town,’ because I think San Marino High is like any other high school in that it’s a microcosm of society. Maybe we like to think that certain things don’t happen in our high school, but it’s not true,” Johnson said. “The difference between society in general and society at San Marino High is that we have people paying attention.”
Cherniss grabbed everyone’s attention less than 30 seconds into the event when he invoked comparisons between San Marino and the affluent communities of Littleton, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., where horrific school shootings occurred. Cherniss acknowledged many factors were in play but singled out “a clear lack of appropriate parenting” as a key component.
“I’ve been in schools for 15 years and without a doubt, the most well-adjusted students I’ve seen are the ones who have a comfortable, open line of communication with their parents,” said Cherniss, who referenced the tragic Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings less than 16 hours before a gunman opened fire on a community college campus in Oregon. “On the flip side, the most challenging kids who exhibit frightening behavior have little or no communication with parents, and it’s not always the kid who has gotten in trouble.”
The most relevant parent question of the night referenced the district’s lofty spot in state rankings and asked if there was an increase in mental health issues and suicide due to academic demands of the district. Johnson agreed with the existence of sky-high expectations of classroom performance but said their origins are from home, not the classroom.
“We’re No. 1 because expectations are set from the very beginning in this district. Parents are successful people and kids see what lies ahead — you hear 2nd-graders talking about going to college,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say we’re like everybody else because our district is not like everybody else’s … [Our students] have goals and are looking ahead, trying to get someplace. But stress is very damaging to the psyche and sometimes [parents] are so unrealistic that you want to shake an adult. It’s crazy what is put on these kids.”
Making her case, Johnson said stress caused a high school student to be hospitalized when the student felt she had failed by being waitlisted at a college.
“It goes out of whack when you lose track of balance,” Johnson said. “What about the kid who is going to be an artist? They probably aren’t going to be good at AP Chemistry, and they’re going to be okay, too. They should be accepted and celebrated.”
A subsequent question directed at Cherniss asked how a parent could incentivize or encourage a student who consistently fails expectations, but the superintendent didn’t completely accept the premise of the question.
“Parents have the expectations that their child will go to Harvard or get all A’s,” Cherniss said. “Parents need to be realistic with their expectations. If a child is feeling like they can never meet those expectations, it will lead to risky behaviors.”
The issue of stress was a common theme throughout the evening. Incontro referenced a Penn State study that found one in three college students have seriously considered suicide and one in 10 have made a suicide attempt. But trying to fix these issues — ones compounded years before students even enroll in a university — on a college campus is too late, Incontro said.
“We need to take care of things now,” Incontro said.
The biggest applause of the event was reserved for the seventh question, which essentially boiled down to this: How many pregnant students attend SMHS and what is the takeaway message for the rest of the student body? While the question was initially directed at Johnson, an indignant Cherniss leaned into the microphone and said, “We support ALL of our students.”
Part of the support the community can provide is reporting risky, suspicious or criminal behavior, Johnson said. Whether it’s a student noticing a behavioral change of a classmate or a parent suspecting another of child abuse, San Marino residents are encouraged to call the WeTip anonymous hotline at (800) 782-7463.
The Q-and-A session also served to clear up some misconceptions, too. One parent accused SMHS of not doing drug sweeps, but Cherniss explained that random drug sweeps with canines are conducted at school.
One parent asked about risky behaviors the panel had witnessed in the past 24 months and Incontro referenced children involved in thefts, public intoxication, reckless driving, speeding, and driving while on cellphones. “That’s how you’re going to die,” the police chief warned.
Ives was asked about the referral process on campus for mental health services and answered that counselors first notice symptoms and can bring in the school psychologist or refer to off-campus services if it is deemed more appropriate. Another question on bullying led Johnson to rail against the “destructive” factor of social media in bullying and she said the police have twice been summoned to campus in the past two school years when a bullying situation became “untenable.”
Even the moments drawing laughter contained a stern warning. “If your kid has a weird email [address], you need to get rid of it,” Johnson said. “It will matter. If you call yourself Malibu Babe, you’re not going to impress Pomona College.”
Incontro deputized parents to launch their own random investigations into their children’s cell phones, the fulcrum for a host of issues. The first thing police do in investigations is ask for phones, because those often contain evidence of the alleged crime or risky behavior, including threats, explicit images and exploitation attempts.
So what are parents to do in trying times, when sexting and drugs and stress-induced illnesses are a daily threat to the idyllic town’s way of life?
“Keep having those conversations, those difficult conversations,” Incontro said. “Don’t be afraid — that’s your job.”
Stress, drugs and talkin’ goals.