Mental health appears to be on the rise overall in the William S. Hart Union High School District, according to surveys taken by the district over the last handful of years.
However, indicators expressing the rates of suicidal thoughts and the use of bigoted slurs continue to be an issue among the student bodies.
According to the School Climate Surveys, which the district distributes every year to eighth and 10th graders, thoughts of suicide among students, as well as feelings of depression and anxiety, showed a decrease between 2019 and 2022. Additionally, the number of students skipping or cutting class seemed to be on the decline during that same time frame.
But while the numbers seem to indicate that the district’s push for social-emotional health in recent years has been successful, according to district staff, the pandemic and other factors did not seem to help them in their goal of eliminating self-harm or bullying on campuses.
According to the surveys, in 2019 a little over 70% of eighth and 10th grade students responded that they had occasionally, frequently or always heard other students make “negative comments or use slurs about someone’s race, religion, sexual orientation or gender expression.”
In 2022, 61.3% answered similarly, with district officials saying that they are continually working to address this ongoing issue.
In the months leading up to the Saugus High School shooting on Nov. 14, 2019, 16.04% of students answered that they did not feel safe on their campuses. In the subsequent surveys since 2019 — one was not taken in 2020 due to COVID-19 — the “safe” question has not been asked again.
Suicide & Self-Harm
According to 2022 data, there has been a slight increase in students experiencing thoughts of suicide as well as students considering self-harm compared to previous years.
The 2022 survey data indicates 13.05% and 86.95% of eighth-grade respondents who experienced thoughts of suicide and those who did not, respectively. In 2021, surveys indicated 10.87% and 83.13% of eighth graders who responded were experiencing thoughts of suicide and those who did not. “That’s [data] that probably bothers us the most when we see those numbers,” said David LeBarron, director of curriculum and assessment for the Hart district.
According to LeBarron, they are unable to provide direct assistance to specific students because surveys are anonymous. However, they share the information with social workers and counselors, so they can connect students with resources overall.
“Those numbers drive us and concern us and even if they were lower than that, any percent above zero is an issue for us that we take very seriously.”
Data also showed 14.23% and 85.77% of 10th–grade respondents from across high schools Academy of the Canyons, Canyon, Castaic, Golden Valley, Hart, Saugus, Valencia, West Ranch and Learning Post/Hart @ Home, experienced thoughts of suicide and have not experienced thoughts of suicide, respectively. In 2021, surveys indicated of the 2,417 10th grade respondents about 14.23% and 85.77% were experiencing thoughts of suicide and not experiencing thoughts of suicide.
This year, student surveys indicated 2.59% and 2.49% of eighth- and 10th-grade respondents, respectively, attempted suicide. In 2021, surveys indicated 2.61% and 2.07% of eighth- and 10th–grade respondents, respectively, attempted suicide.
Surveys showed 15.75% and 14.77% of eighth and 10th graders considered self-harm compared to 11.20% and 14.73% of students in 2021, roughly about 50 students more in their respective grade levels.
LeBarron described the School Climate Surveys as a kind of tool to show the district “flags” or areas where they might need to allocate more resources to help students.
Dave Caldwell, spokesman for the district, said the district’s wellness centers are a strong resource for students needing mental health assistance. In addition, the Hart district has prepared staff at all levels to step in if necessary.
“At the beginning of this past school year, there was a couple days of training of teachers and other staff to help them to recognize the signs within students,” Caldwell said.
Depression & Anxiety
In the 2022 and 2021 surveys, students were also questioned regarding how often they’ve felt depressed and anxious, whether it was never, infrequent, occasionally, frequently or always. The 2019 survey did not include this question.
A cumulative 44.75% and 56.89% of eighth- and 10th-grade responders said they occasionally, frequently or always felt depressed or anxious, compared to the 2021 data, where 56.23% and 58.67% of students said they occasionally, frequently or always felt depressed or anxious.
According to Caldwell, students are encouraged to speak with counselors, social workers, stop by a wellness center, or take a number of other actions when seeking mental health or emotional help.
Students also take a health class, as required by the state, and there is a unit on mental health, Caldwell added. As part of the unit, students learn about healthy coping mechanisms, which are additional tools for students.
One of the big areas of concern for the district, while they are showing improvements across multiple indicator categories on the Student Climate Surveys, continues to be bullying and the use of slurs on school campuses.
While showing a near 10% drop in students using slurs on campuses, a majority still reported having “occasionally” or more frequently hearing them during the school year.
“We have very diverse campuses and students have every right to feel comfortable and safe at their school sites and so that’s a big deal to us,” LeBarron said.
“Why the decrease? I think a lot of it comes from our efforts to better educate students, and I think the last couple of years have helped students realize what’s important …. Realize how interconnected we are and how much we truly do need each other.”
LeBarron emphasized that administrators have been working more to resolve issues when it comes to slurs or parents having to be involved, as opposed to just dealing with the outcome.
According to the survey, and a presentation delivered to the district board, Lebarron said that 61% of eighth graders and 63% of 10th graders responded “yes” to the question: “If I did not feel safe at my school, I would tell an adult.”
When asked why the question “I feel physically safe at this school” had been removed on subsequent surveys, LeBarron called it an oversight on the district’s part.
Housing insecurity between the 2019 and 2022 surveys appears to have increased slightly for the district, with 96.25% of students in 2019 saying they lived in a “home with one or more parent/s or guardian/s” while 95.04% responded similarly in 2022.
For the most recent survey that polled 5,381 eighth-, 10th– and some 11th-grade students, 124 of survey respondents said they lived in another relative’s home or a home shared with another family. Approximately 17 live in a friend’s house, 13 are in a foster/group home, nine live in a hotel or motel and 17 live in a shelter, car or campground. Approximately 150 preferred not to answer.
LeBarron said that the district is well aware of the issues regarding housing insecurity, in part due to families and living situations being one of the biggest factors contributing to educational outcomes.
“Whether it be homelessness, whether it be foster youth, or just situations happening at home, we work to resolve that or help as much as we can,” said Lebarron. “Through our wellness centers, multiple schools have outreach programs not just for students, but for families, that need to get food and clothing. We work with local agencies, nonprofits, to help supply the same thing for families.”
LeBarron said that most schools, if not all, are actively involved in finding solutions for families in need.
Caldwell cited, for example, the Growl Center on Golden Valley’s campus, which distributes food goods, clothing and other items to families in need.
Additional reporting by Jose Herrera, Signal Staff Writer