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Becoming aware: how a school community should look out for one another
June 20, 2017
On Wednesday, April 26, Superintendent of Schools Christine Johnson released a one-call that informed parents about a threat of violence. The incident localized an issue that has overcast the nation for nearly the past two decades: school shootings, namely Columbine, Newtown and many more, that have devastated communities. However, through such tragedies, conversations can be initiated on awareness of those around us and on how the school community can offer help to troubled individuals who threaten to resort to violence.
Alienation can take a tremendous toll on the mentality of a student who wanders through a vast high school environment.
According to principal Tom Mead, while Algonquin strives to create an inclusive atmosphere and sense of belonging for all students through promoting activities, efforts can be limited.
“…Sometimes students do feel alienated,” Mead said. “They do feel cut off or not a part of the organization. It’s then that we work with those students and their families, their parents, to try to help them with that. There may be some underlying mental or emotional reason for this.”
Simultaneously, with stress seen as prevalent on the recently-released MetroWest Adolescent survey, the academic and social pressures that accompany almost all high school students can pile up.
“Our stress level is crazy right now,” health and fitness teacher Melissa Arvanigian said. “Not only academic stress, but social stress… A lot of us compare ourselves to an unrealistic lifestyle or an image of what we want to be on the social media platform.”
“High school isn’t always easy- figuring out who you are and where you belong, what you want for yourself in life,” Director of Guidance Lisa Connery said. “It’s not always easy and so, sometimes, students need extra support.”
In the present digital age, Arvanigian believes that social media plays a dangerous role in how people perceive themselves. Since negative material is often filtered out on social media platforms, teenagers are often only exposed to the positives of others’ lives, leaving them feeling dissatisfied with their own and upset with their self-image through comparison. According to Arvanigian, this takes a toll on mental health.
Individuals may exhibit multiple qualities that yield a possible breaking point or signify that they are not mentally healthy.
According to Arvanigian, a significant warning sign is a change in behavior and attitude.
“They’re a happy kid or they’re typically an active kid with some outside activities and then they stop that or pull away from things,” can be a sign of a problem, Arvanigian said.
Other similar signs include a dip in grades and feelings of numbness, which Arvanigian describes as “not a lot of emotion within things happening in the world or at school or just in life, acting more emotionless, being more negative.”
After noticing certain signs, reporting on others and providing them help is the key to preventing tragic acts of violence from happening in schools. To do so, friends must look out for friends and break down the stigma of speaking up and asking for help.
Arvanigian believes in listening as the first, key preventative measure.
“Listening is the number one component, to what people are saying, whether they are saying they’re not worthy enough, they’re not good, anything that has to do with self-esteem or how they see themselves,” Arvanigian said.
Arvanigian emphasizes the role friends play as a cautious listener and user of social media, in which they can notice the behavioral shifts and patterns of their at-risk peers before tragedy takes place.
“The first item of defense would be friends,” Arvanigian said. “Your friends will turn to you or you will notice something before the adult would.”
Along with developing this courage to speak up, students must also foster a school environment that de-stigmatizes the concept of reaching out for help.
“I think there’s a big stigma around getting help and also being perceived as the kind of ‘snitch,’ Connery said. “When, in fact, I think it’s so important that you guys just trust your instincts.”
Similarly, Arvanigian believes that often, struggling individuals are still afraid to be vulnerable, ask for aid, and reveal the issues that encumber them.
“They’re afraid to talk about it because they don’t want to be perceived as weak or inferior…” Arvanigian said. “They don’t want to be the ones saying ‘I have this. This is what I struggle with.’”
Yet even before providing the necessary guidance, awareness of how students’ words, behaviors, choices and attitudes are instrumental in influencing the moods of those around them is key in prevention.
“We prefer to take that preventive approach first and foremost,” Connery said. “What I mean by that is like helping students to become more aware of their choice of words – how their words might be impacting other people. [We] try to kind of get down to a basic understanding of why whatever is going on might be unsettling to other people and try to heighten awareness around that.”
Both the guidance and health and fitness departments have made efforts to promote mindfulness and awareness of the variety of students at school through Day for Change and Health and Wellness Week. The underlying premise of Day for Change, an anti-bullying program, is to help students understand a few themes.
“One, we’re all more alike than we are different,” Connery said. “We all have those basic underlying needs of a sense of belonging, feeling connected, accepted.”
Day for Change is a manifestation of guidance’s “preventative” efforts.
“And so what we’re trying to do is foster what we would call protective factors,” Connery said. “Those protective factors are things like a sense of belonging and connection- kind of a higher purpose. We want to try to help people feel more connected to the community and have more vested interest in one another because we feel that ultimately fostering an inclusive environment is the best way to prevent negative things from happening.”
Inclusivity on the part of the school community is a preventative effort that Mead also believes in.
“[We should] try to be as inclusive as possible in the school,” Mead said. “… So that can be clubs, that can be sports, that can be specific activities, programs or organizations… because if they are are a part of something, then the chances are they’re going to be less likely to be alienated and feel on the outside of things.”
It’s on the part of the school to work together to create a community that cares about one another, helping each other up through lows.
“One part of our response to this might be a reminder to staff and to students about our collective responsibilities as a community to help each other,” Mead said. “So that when we notice something, or hear something, or read something from a member of our community and it causes some sort of alarm or creates a sense of danger, that we don’t dismiss it and we don’t ignore it, but that we deal with it. We work with it in the sense that we seek guidance and help from each other.”
The incident on Wednesday, May 26 shines light on a variety of topics, allowing for a plethora of conversations from mental health to compassion for peers to inclusivity.
“Yes, we’re a high, top-performing school, but on the other hand we really need to focus on not only pushing, pushing, and pushing, but allowing kids to step back a little bit and take a breath and realize that without being mentally healthy, everything is not going to fall into place,” Arvanigian said.
“I think this is an important issue to talk about because I do think it goes to some very, very important characteristics of a school community,” Mead said. “And that is, on the one hand, the school community is tolerant, but also that the school community is responsible to itself. When issues and troubles and problems of different concerns come up, that there’s a way and a path people can take to help resolve them. You’ve heard people say ‘it takes a village’ and that’s probably true, even as trite as it sounds.”