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Parents Can Assist Pressured Students

A high-performing school district doesn’t come without challenges, a subject that was discussed in detail last Thursday evening in the Webb Theatre at San Marino High School as Partnership for Awareness held its first event of the 2016-17 school year, entitled “Your Pressured Child: How to Help Build A More Balanced Life.”

The featured panel was comprised of Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss, SMHS Principal Mary Johnson, SMHS Intervention Counselor Laura Ives and Police Chief John Incontro, who took turns explaining what they thought were the biggest issues facing today’s teenagers – especially those in a unique environment like San Marino.

“Understanding this issue is very important for all of us,” said Cherniss, who began the program that was attended by approximately 120 parents and community members.

“We know your students are under a lot of pressure. It comes at us in very different ways.”

Cherniss said the district confronts the issue on 3 different fronts: through the teachers, via a Mindfulness training program and by assisting parents.

“We have strived to give teachers the skills necessary to identify at-risk students and their behavior,” said Cherniss. “We started the student mental health academy last year and more than 60 teachers participated. Teachers learned about ways to support kids and how to identify risky behaviors.”

Cherniss also mentioned the Mindfulness program that was initiated last fall in Health classes at San Marino High School and was instituted this year at Huntington Middle School.

“Mindfulness uses exercises to reduce anxiety and deal with pressure,” Cherniss said. “This has really helped our students.”

Cherniss also mentioned the valuable role of parents in the equation.

“We need your help,” he said. “The students put a lot of pressure on themselves.”

The superintendent mentioned the role of peer pressure in making decisions – both good and bad ones.

“If they hang around good kids, they are going to make better decisions,” Cherniss said. “Peer pressure can also be very tough when it comes to under-age drinking. But it’s not just their drinking. I am concerned that they will feel pressure to get into a car with people who have been drinking. We need people to step up and make decisions.”

Johnson indicated a high level of stress in the high school community.

“What really causes the stress that we see at the high school?” she asked, rhetorically. “So many things are coming at them. Adolescence comes with a lot of big changes. But what hurts them the most is unrealistic expectations. When someone feels they can’t win. That they are doing their best and it still is not good enough. That’s the worst thing we see at the high school.”

Johnson told parents and community members that students “need to know they can get a C in a class and you will still love them.”

“I think you need to acknowledge what’s there,” she continued. “There is a lot of comparison that goes on in the high school. We have to wipe out perfectionism. It’s one of the most destructive forces in the universe. And that goes for us, too.”

Johnson also referenced the Mindfulness training and encouraged parents to make sure students are getting enough sleep while enjoying the simple things in life.

“We used to be able to walk home from school,” she said. “Now kids are all plugged in, all the time. We are actually introducing that back in school, believe it or not.”

Johnson referenced a recent incident where she stopped by a classroom to meet with a teacher at the end of the school day.

“The entire class was being led through a meditation exercise,” Johnson said. “That teacher was sending their students home with clear minds.”

Johnson also said the school has not experienced much in the way of on-campus drug usage.

“I think the randomness of the visits by the drug dog really helps,” she said.

Johnson also mentioned that students are subjected to random breathalyzer testing at the two biggest dances of the school year – coronation and prom – and that students are also frisked at prom “since it’s so late in the school year.”

Johnson delivered a challenge to parents at the close of her remarks, telling them “you are the primary educators of your children. If you model good coping skills when you face difficult things at home, they will pick up on that. The same if you model healthy habits, and

how to play.”

“Let them grow up,” she concluded. “I shouldn’t see moms coming in to ask about that [grade of] B. Let them do it. You don’t have to speak for them at every turn.”

Ives said she and other counselors are seeing a rise in anxiety among students.

“The pressures are starting before high school,” Ives said. “There is nothing wrong with high expectations, but unreasonably high expectations can be damaging if the student doesn’t achieve them.”

She also said that the stress of the digital age “allows for no down-time.”

“Every time we pick up our phone, there is anxiety,” she said. “And that anxiety leads to negative coping methods.”

Ives also mentioned the need for a full night’s sleep and referenced a former student who “would stay up all night trying to get ahead.”

This created a domino effect,” said Ives. “The school found out and helped the student adjust.”

She also mentioned a former San Marino High School student who went to an Ivy League college and “pretty much fell apart” when they received their first ‘B.’

“It’s better to deal with it before then,” Ives said, as members of the audience gasped.

Ives also touted the school’s Link Crew and Peer mentoring programs as positive tools to help students acclimatize to SMHS.

Before launching into his opening remarks, Incontro explained how his impending marriage means he now has a son and daughter in San Marino schools. On a hopeful note, he also mentioned he has two adult sons from a previous marriage “who survived adolescence.”

“We have a good relationship throughout the district,” said the Chief. “We have very few issues and very little contact with our students but occasionally, we have a serious situation.”

Incontro referenced a highly publicized incident that took place a couple years ago when a San Marino High School student did not report to an SAT test and instead went to a bus terminal in downtown Los Angeles in hopes of leaving the area.

“She was so pressured at 15 years old that she wanted to run away,” said Incontro.

He also spoke about underage drinking in San Marino and mentioned that the SMPD has in the past year on three occasions arrested kids “who were extremely under the influence of alcohol” and in some instances, parents were on the premises.

“Some people think it is a rite of passage,” Incontro said. “They are wrong.”

He said that San Marino Police Officers “want young people to see us in a whole different light. We will show up to anything You call us we will be there. We want to be a different type of officer. We want to be there in support.”

He encouraged parents and caretakers to “Be aware of what your kids are looking at on social media.”

“Go through their history file,” he said. “Then be prepared for what you will see.”

During a question and answer period, Cherniss was asked about the amount of homework assigned by the district’s educators.

“We have parameters about how much should be assigned,” said Cherniss. “Some kids are doing too much homework. The repetitive, drill & kill homework is unnecessary.”

Johnson also was queried on the subject, and said “When students take too many AP and honors classes, I don’t know what to say. We have some kids who can handle 4 APs, but there are not that many. If you push your kids to take four APs there is going to be a lot of homework. Maybe 2 APs is better than 4. I have heard people say you need 14 AP classes to get into a good college. That is not true.”

Johnson mentioned that she asked all of the teachers at SMHS to assign no homework over Labor Day weekend earlier this school year.

“Parents were really appreciative,” she said with enthusiasm.

She also said “The best thing we have ever done at this school was to end the first semester before winter break. Kids were studying and writing papers over break. That’s not right.”

Ives was asked about anxiety and depression and said counselors see more of these challenges “during junior year.”

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Ives. “Kids are applying for college and they think ‘this is the last year my GPA is going to be calculated.’”

When asked about warning signs of stress and anxiety, Ives said that parents and caretakers should pay attention to changes in sleep patterns, eating patterns and an increase in emotional outbursts.

“It’s sometimes hard to determine because they are teenagers,” said Ives, as audience members chuckled. “So look for something out of the norm.”

Incontro was asked about a recent incident where a former SMUSD student was arrested for bullying and making terrorist threats.

“We did an investigation of a former student who no longer lives in town,” Incontro explained. “During the investigation, we looked at a video where 2 rifles were seen. The child was arrested and placed in juvenile hall. He had no previous arrests.”

The student is now on house arrest and wears a monitoring device. He faces a court hearing in November.

Incontro said the parents pulled the student from Huntington Middle School due to bullying and moved to another town.

“From the interviews we did, it was pretty bad,” Incontro said of the bullying. “As a cop, I feel bad. Even after the kid left town, after he left the environment, he was still victimized.”

Incontro also praised Johnson for going into each classroom when the arrest was announced.

An audience member asked if the young people in San Marino faced consequences.

“Nothing,” said Incontro, as silence fell over the auditorium. “They didn’t commit a crime. It was something that didn’t have to happen, but it did.”

Another attendee asked “What is the policy? What are the ramifications?”

“We have suspended students and we can suspend students,” said Cherniss. “We need to take a hard line on this.”

Incontro said prosecutions can result from a physical assault, “but it’s up to the parents.”

Partnership for Awareness seeks to educate, engage, and empower parents and youth on critical health and social challenges faced by children and teens in San Marino through partnership and coordination with local schools, community organizations and law enforcement.

The next Partnership for Awareness speaker will be Ron Lieber, a Wall Street Journal Finance Columnist, who will present ‘The Opposite of Spoiled,’ which will address how to raise children to become grounded, generous and smart about money.

Lieber will speak on Mon., Oct. 17 in the Kenneth F. White Auditorium at Huntington Middle School beginning at 7:00 p.m.

The PfA will acknowledge Red Ribbon week from Oct. 24–28 with individualized programs at all campuses.


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