Students petition for academic and wellness reform following Mountain View High death

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Note: Resources for persons feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can be found at the bottom of this story.

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District are petitioning for reform that they say will better ensure the district supports students’ mental health needs, initially prompted by the passing of a Mountain View High School junior earlier this month.

Broadly, students have called for decreased homework loads and other measures meant to alleviate academic stress, as well as a range of solutions to bolster the district’s mental health support.

The circumstances of the death that prompted the petition are not yet public, and students have since disassociated the petition with the passing itself. An original foreword to the petition assumed the cause of death to be suicide, and criticized the school for not properly addressing this most recent death as well as two others over the course of the past three years which were publicly confirmed to be suicides. 

In an interview, Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer stressed the importance of avoiding spreading rumors about the passing out of respect for the family’s privacy and grieving process.

“We certainly do know, though, that that we have lost students to suicide on the Mountain View High campus in the last few years,” Meyer said. “And it is certainly a reminder of how significant that loss is to young people.”

Mountain View senior Marina Reynaud, who created the collaborative document with over 250 signatures, backtracked from that a day after she started circulating the petition. She said that after receiving feedback from another Mountain View student, she decided to change the premise of the petition because it was not her intention to use the deaths to her “benefit” and amplify her own message.

A new foreword to the petition explicitly notes that it “is not intended to be attached to the recent deaths of our MVHS peers.”

“What we are trying to do however, is spread awareness to the administration on the amount of students who do or have dealt with mental health problems during their time in high school,” the foreword continues. “Mental health is a huge issue at Mountain View (and many other schools) that should be addressed.”

HOMEWORK AND COURSE LOAD

One of the most detailed action items on the petition — and a seemingly recurring talking point in the student mental health discussion — is a call for decreased homework loads.

“Teachers should give less homework: It would be beneficial to students’ stress levels if teachers were forced to only assign 30-45 minutes of homework per day,” the petition reads. “Then, the rest of the students’ time can be allotted for studying and extracurriculars.”

According to the 2019–2020 Mountain View student handbook, students in college preparatory and non–UC recognized honors classes can expect up to 2–3 hours of “focused, undistracted homework per week” in each class, which averages out to 36 minutes a night at the top end.

AP and UC-approved honors courses should generally assign 4–5 hours of homework weekly — an average of an hour a night at the top end — the handbook also states.

In an interview, Raynaud reaffirmed her assertion that homework needs to be further limited, but said that there’s more nuance than what’s written in the petition.

“I think sometimes there is homework that’s just kind of busy work that I do agree should [be limited],” Raynaud said. “But homework that is like reading a textbook or actually learning things, I think there’s really no way to shorten that. Especially for AP classes, there’s a certain amount of work you have to do.”

Mountain View junior Abbie Reese, who wrote about overwhelming amounts of homework and the pressure to take AP and honors courses on a widely circulated Instagram post with 700 likes, agreed that AP course loads are inevitably going to be difficult.

“In terms of homework, of course AP teachers have content they need to teach and … it is a harder course,” Reese said. “I think it does get a little iffy when it falls into the category of none of your students can get this done on time and most of them are reaching out to you and saying, ‘We don’t have enough time for this.’”

When asked why students would choose to take AP and honors classes if the college prep homework load is in line with what they see as reasonable, both Raynaud and Reese contended that students are pressured to take AP and honors courses that they can’t handle.

Students, Raynaud claimed, are primarily pressured by their parents and other students, but she also asserted that pressure from some teachers pushes students toward unbalanced course loads.

When asked, Raynaud couldn’t think of any specific school policies or recurring actions the school takes that explicitly encourage students to take courses they can’t handle, but said that it’s “small things” from teachers.

“Today, and I don’t think this was intentional to hurt someone, but my teacher was like, ‘Oh, fill out this form and tell me which AP tests you’re taking.’ And that was under the assumption that everyone in that class was taking an AP test,” Raynaud said.

Raynaud said that the question was posed in an AP class — but that she still thought the implication was harmful.

Reese said that she feels that some of her teachers, though certainly not all, encourage her to take AP and honors courses that she can handle academically, but not in the broader context of the other courses she takes and her own wellness.

She said that her academic counselor has generally done a good job of guiding her toward balanced course loads, and Raynaud suggested that the district hire more academic counselors so that each counselor has fewer students to work with, allowing them to make more individualized and better-informed recommendations to students when choosing courses.

Superintendent Meyer said that while she’s not aware of any policies at the district level specifically about encouraging moderation in course load, there has been conversation on the subject and academic counselors generally guide students toward balanced schedules.

“I do believe that all of our counseling departments do emphasize the importance of balance,” Meyer said. “And counsel students towards making sure that they have a variety of experiences that may include courses that aren’t AP and extracurriculars, and to make sure that they have time within their day.”

The petition also calls for teachers to “plan their schedules so that tests and projects don’t overlap”; implement a “growth mindset” grading system; and allow for more lenient late work policy, although the specifics of those items are unclear, and Raynaud wasn’t entirely certain what she’d want them to look like — some of those points weren’t written by her, as it’s a collaborative document.

“The conversation of balance has been constant,” Wellness Coordinator William Blair said. “Part of our course selection process includes a time management worksheet … that we give students [and] we encourage our teachers to have the conversations with the students about balance, and what’s an appropriate load. … The philosophy of having a balanced workload, I think, is something that we’ve been promoting.”

Meyer said that there has been discussion about limiting AP courses — a suggestion that Reese made — but no specific policy at the moment.

She noted that the district needs to both ensure that students don’t feel compelled to take AP courses but also support “perhaps the smaller number” of students who benefit from and excel in AP courses. She also said that it’s important that the district “open access” for students who aren’t in advanced AP courses at the moment.

Raynaud, for her part, said that she’s undecided on the idea of capping AP courses, because she suspects students might look to pile on other activities like clubs and volunteer organizations to make up for having fewer AP courses.

“I think it just kind of takes away the school part of the stress,” Raynaud said. “But I think … in the end, you’re just going to still be doing a bunch of things for college applications.”

Despite no concrete district-wide policy, the Mountain View student handbook “encourages students to consider the number of AP classes they enroll in, keeping in mind that real college courses frequently require self-directed study that can, at a student’s option, far exceed time specified here.”

The handbook suggests that students who find themselves spending significantly more time than the expected 4–5 hours a week on homework in an AP or honors course speak with their teachers “for help examining their study habits and strategies and for other resources.”

On the topic of homework, Meyer said that there’s research to do moving forward, specifically pertaining to whether homework is contributing to actual mastery of the subject, as opposed to being extra work that’s reinforcing content that’s already solidified.

“So there’s that question around, at what point are you having diminishing returns for homework, and is there a way to assess perhaps differently so students don’t feel compelled to … complete a task as opposed to master the subject?” Meyer said.

“I think we need to look at the stress that comes with feeling compelled to take a very full load of very challenging courses,” she added. “But at the same time, we also need to look within those courses to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do.”

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Alongside the discussion surrounding homework and course loads, the mental health services that the school provides are also a dominant part of the petition and broader conversation.

The petition specifically calls for hiring more therapeutic counselors so that students “don’t have to be on a waiting list” and can “find a counselor that is a good fit for them instead of placing them with the counselor … available at the moment.”

Raynaud, who said she wasn’t completely familiar with the district’s existing infrastructure, also suggested hiring licensed psychotherapists to work in conjunction with the district’s existing support. 

Blair, the district’s wellness coordinator, said that in general, there aren’t any waitlists for the support services that the district offers.

In broad terms, the first step to accessing the district’s services is to fill out the district’s referral form, which can be done by the student in need, a friend, teacher or any other community member. 

“[The intake coordinator] meets with the student to kind of determine what the best support looks like,” Blair said. “Sometimes it’s academic counseling support, sometimes it’s support with social services or therapeutic mental health support. Sometimes it’s more at the administrative level, sometimes it’s about helping to foster communication with teachers and with family. So there’s a wide range of what the need may be.”

The district partners with CHAC, Uplift Family Services and Stanford Psychiatry to provide one-to-one counseling and therapeutic support with a general policy of providing short-term care for students, and later helping with the transition into more long-term care as needed.

Blair acknowledged that the district’s services might not always best serve students, and that the district is “happy to help” students find support elsewhere as needed.

“Almost across the board with all of our providers, we have increased services in the 2021 school year, and we’re expanding services as we hit [next year] as well,” Blair said, speaking of the district’s increased caseload capacity with its partners. “We’re building the infrastructure.”

“We have strong academic counseling, strong college and career counseling and strong therapeutic services,” Meyer said. “But there are the day-to-day stressors and the things that may not qualify you for clinical therapy, where you might need to go talk to someone and think it through and have someone objectively share support.”

Meyer said that the current model in some ways supports those “day-to-day” stressors, but that the district is still talking about the best way to support those needs.

Reese, who said she wasn’t entirely familiar with the support that the district provides in partnership with organizations like CHAC, suggested that the district offer therapeutic counseling services similar to the way it offers academic counselors, although she acknowledged it would take a significant amount of time and money.

Students would be paired with a wellness counselor for their four years in high school just as they are with academic counselors, which Reese contended could help remove some of the barriers like reluctance or lack of information that might prevent students from accessing support.

“I don’t know how well this would coincide with some of the other systems being proposed … But just as a baseline, every student would know exactly … who [to] you reach out to if you’re having a hard time,” Reese said.

Meyer said that the district this year shifted its academic counseling services to include more social emotional learning components, which in fact aligns partially with what Reese suggested.

“Our academic counselors have infused more social emotional support opportunities within their counseling yearly schedule,” Meyer said. “So that involves having time to talk to the students about their goals and and how it’s going with them — more of a check in and shifting away from only talking about what courses you need to graduate and be UC-ready, to really exploring what they’re interested in, what their strengths are and adding in that social emotional component.”

Blair said that many students do reach out to their academic counselors for mental health support, and Meyer added that many teachers, assistant principals and principals fill that role as well.

“I want to say … prior to needing that [clinical] support, our teachers do an excellent job of creating a welcoming environment within their classroom … recognizing that that relationship has to be built to optimize the environment and to optimize learning,” Meyer said.

Blair also cited student leadership classes, freshman orientation programs, academic counseling, tutorial centers and college and career centers all as being a part of broader “preventative” services that foster well being in the student body.

“My message is, if you have a need for support, please reach out, and we’ll do our best to get you connected with the appropriate support,” Blair said.

MOVING ON TOO QUICKLY

Although not included in Raynaud’s petition, a number of students have criticized what they say was a failure on the part of the district to properly address the death.

Reese, who was notified of the death the night prior by a mutual friend and said she was close to the student in middle school, felt that her teachers moved on from the death — as well as the two others in recent memory — far too quickly, and didn’t give students enough room to process it.

“I went through swinging back and forth between feeling numb and sad,” she said. “And then obviously, I had school the next day, and I was just kind of thrown back into a normal schedule. … And it was like, ‘I don’t really know how to process right now, because I feel like I need time to talk about what’s going on.’”

She said that while she thought one or two of her teachers addressed it well — including her first period teacher — the “vast majority” of the staff she interacted with “mentioned it in passing,” then carried on. She added that friends told her that some of their teachers had misgendered the student, which she found particularly frustrating.

As for what specifically she wanted from her teachers, Reese said that she would’ve liked more space to discuss and share feelings.

“This is kind of a weird comparison, but in my AP U.S. history class when [the Capitol insurrection happened], we were given time at the beginning of class to kind of discuss how that made us feel because a lot of us were getting really bad anxiety over it,” she said. “I think I’d like to see some of that — you know, a lot of us need some time to process, maybe share our thoughts to our teacher, get some more personal words.”

Meyer said that since being notified of the student’s death, the district has engaged in daily consultation with experts at Stanford University, the HEARD alliance, Kara and CHAC through Blair’s office to inform best policy.

“We rely very heavily on their guidance,” Blair said. “We’re following best practices set out by the professionals.”

After receiving news of the death, the district sent a message to the community notifying of the loss, and prepared a statement for first period teachers to read in their classes the next day. Blair said that teachers were encouraged to allow space for processing, and added that several support sessions were held for teachers who felt they needed additional guidance navigating the issue.

“Everybody grieves differently, and I think that’s really important,” Blair said. “Some students need the space to process and to talk, [and for] others, part of the grieving process is to not be in that space of processing.”

The school staffed the library with CHAC support staff to provide a space for students who needed additional processing, and also made available a Zoom link for similar support for remote students to “honor all responses to grief.”

Blair said that staff support meetings were also held for Los Altos High School teachers to prepare them should the topic come up in conversation, but Los Altos teachers were not instructed to read Meyer’s statement notifying of the death — which was in line with the expert consultation.

“I do have to say this feedback [about moving on too quickly] is really appreciated,” Meyer said. “Because we’re speaking to our advisors, but we want to make sure that the students have a voice in this as well. And if they’re telling us they need more, they need more.”

NEXT STEPS

Moving forward, Meyer and Blair pledged to have continued conversations about the district’s role in supporting student mental health.

“It has been devastating to see our students mourning, our families mourning and our staff mourning,” Meyer said. “And to that end, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to not only work to prevent any tragedies, but to support the students who are here and mourning with us.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Blair said. “We become educators because we love young people, and we love students, and we want them to thrive. … And it’s difficult watching our young people when they’re struggling. … We want to be there to help them through those struggles and through those challenges.”

Both Blair and Meyer expressed gratitude for the students who have reached out to them with suggestions moving forward, and encouraged students to continue to speak out.

“One of the things that we continue to plan with a more heightened urgency is to have a systemic way to reach out to students and to use their perspective and voice for district-wide improvement,” Meyer said. “One of the reasons that we recently reorganized the district office for the community outreach specialist was to have a systemic way to do that, and to honor the voices of those who are in the classroom all day and have a better vantage point than we do.”

The district recently appointed Los Altos English teacher Michelle Bissonnette to the new role of community outreach specialist, which will be responsible for communicating with and gathering feedback from the community to inform policy across the district.

Meyer said that, in the short term, she plans to share the feedback from students about where their stress comes from and what they think the district can do moving forward with teachers and the board — and to assess in those conversations how, or whether, the district should implement change.

“We knew before, but there certainly is an outcry,” Meyer said. “Students definitely have shared with us that the stress that they’re feeling within the day is very difficult. And so we have to honor and respect that voice and do what we can to support them.”

“It’s an ongoing collaboration,” Blair said. “It takes time, it takes thoughtfulness, it takes a concerted effort — and I think we are all committed to that. It’s the ongoing collaboration that I think will get us to where we want to be.”

Any person feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a crisis counselor, or text “HELLO” to 741741. The Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District’s student referral form can be found here in English, and here in Spanish.

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