Cambridge’s school climate sub-committee reviewed research on high school students at a meeting on Wednesday, which found a dramatic increase in mental health concerns and discrimination by students.
The May 2022 Anonymous and Voluntary Adolescent and Middle School Health Survey looked at responses from 1,282 high school students and 918 middle school students in the Cambridge Public School District.
The study found that the number of students who experienced discrimination at schools in grades 6 through 8 nearly tripled compared to last year. Students reported an increase in discrimination across categories including race, sexual orientation, faith and gender identity.
Gender nonconforming students comprise the group with the highest reported discrimination in both middle and high schools.
Kimberly Huffer, director of social-emotional learning — a new position created at CPS this year — said it’s important to recognize this trend in order to promote inclusion in the district.
“This is important to us because it’s one of our values in Cambridge Public Schools — our sense of belonging,” she said. “It’s one of our core values.”
The report also revealed a high prevalence of mental health issues in the student population. According to the survey, 27 percent of respondents said they struggle with their mental health “often/always”. Hafer said the move is indicative of the continuing impact of the “epidemic stigma” on students.
“Our students are still carrying a lot of stress and anxiety,” she said. “One of the biggest anxieties our students identify is around the school environment — so thinking about academic performance, thinking about life after high school, all those kinds of anxieties.”
Along with stress related to school and academic life, the district identified depression and suicidal thoughts as two of the top mental health concerns faced by the CPS student body. To address these concerns, the district is offering mental health support programs and suicide prevention training for its teachers.
Along with training, the district is taking a “multi-level approach” to address the data, according to the report. According to Huffer, early-stage initiatives—targeting all students—focus on developing students’ “social-emotional learning.” The district also conducts a comprehensive social-emotional learning screening each year and includes SEL-focused curriculum in the classroom.
“While it’s not necessarily mental health, we know that social-emotional learning skills serve as a protective factor,” Haffer said.
Secondary initiatives focus on providing early intervention for disadvantaged students in addition to individual and small group support, in partnership with an outside teletherapy counseling service based on the district.
“It’s not just CPS kind of, but really working with the community and partnering with the community to make sure there are resources for students and families,” Haffer said.
Cambridge Public Elementary Schools Assistant Superintendent Michelle Madera said that while the results of the survey may be “very disappointing,” it is important for the district to recognize the problems presented in the data and focus on improvement.
“We want to make sure we use the data to inform our actions, resources and supports for students,” she said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the purpose of this data and how we use it.”
—Staff Writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter. @sallyedwards04.
-Staff Secretary Ayumi Nagatomi can be reached. email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter. @ayumi_nagatomi.