The Cambridge School Climate Subcommittee in a Wednesday meeting reviewed a survey of the upper-school student populations, revealing a dramatic increase in mental health concerns and cases of discrimination experienced by students.
Fielded in May 2022, the anonymous and voluntary Teen and Middle Grades Health Survey saw responses from 1,282 high school students and 918 middle schoolers in the Cambridge Public School District.
The survey revealed that schools saw roughly triple the number of sixth to eighth grade students experiencing discrimination compared to the previous year. Students reported discrimination increased across multiple categories, including race, sexual orientation, faith, and gender identity.
Gender non-conforming students comprised the group facing the highest reported discrimination in both high schools and middle schools.
Kimberly Huffer, director of social emotional learning — a new position established in CPS this year — said it is crucial to recognize this trend in order to promote inclusivity in the district.
“This is important to us because it is one of our values within Cambridge Public Schools — our sense of belonging,” she said. “It’s one of our core values.”
The report also revealed sustained high rates of mental health issues within the student population. According to the survey, 27 percent of respondents said they struggle with their mental health “most of the time/always.” Huffer said this trend is a manifestation of continued impact from the “isolation of the pandemic” on students.
“Our students are still carrying a lot of worries and anxiety,” she said. “One of the biggest worries that our students are identifying is around school — so thinking about academic performance, life after high school, just kind of all those worries.”
Alongside anxieties related to school and academic life, the district identified depression and suicidal ideations as two major mental health concerns faced by the CPS student body. In order to address these concerns, the district is offering mental health support programs and providing suicide prevention training to its educators.
Along with professional training, the district said it is taking a “multi-tiered approach” to address the data, per the report. According to Huffer, initiatives placed in the first tier — which targets all students — focus on developing students’ “social emotional learning.” The district added it conducts biannual universal social emotional learning screening and includes curriculum focused on SEL in classes.
“While that isn’t necessarily mental health, we also know that social emotional learning skills can really help serve as a protective factor,” Huffer said.
Second-tier initiatives focus on providing early intervention to students in need, including individual and small group support in addition to timely mental health services in partnership with outside teletherapy counseling services, per the district.
“This is not just a CPS only kind of piece, but really working with the community and partnering with the community to make sure that there are resources for students and families,” Huffer said.
Michelle Madera, assistant superintendent for Cambridge public elementary schools, said while the results from the survey can be “pretty depressing,” it is important for the district to recognize the problems presented in the data and focus on improvement.
“We want to make sure that we use the data to inform our practices, our resources, and our supports to students,” she said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the purpose of this data and how we use it.”