Content warning: This story contains mention of suicide and sexual violence.

Three years ago, March 13, 2020, was the last regular day for students at Evanston Township High School before the COVID-19 pandemic launched everyone into more than a year of remote learning.

Between the pre-pandemic fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021 – the first quarter back for in-person classes – suicide risk assessments among ETHS students rose by 104%, from 26 to 53.

In May 2020, 51% of all ETHS students met the criteria for depressive disorder based on screening surveys. A “normal” rate of depression across an entire student body, according to experts, is typically somewhere between 10% and 15%.

But today the good news is that high school students in Evanston are doing much better, on average, than they were for much of the pandemic, according to new data presented to the school board on Monday, March 13.

ETHS Assistant Superintendent and Principal Taya Kinzie (left) and Associate Principal for Student Services Mia Lavizzo present student well-being data to the board on March 13. Credit: ETHS YouTube

Suicide risk assessments fell from 53 in the first quarter of 2021 to 43 in the first quarter of 2022, and then down again to 31 during the second quarter of the current school year. In April 2022, 25% of students qualified as clinically depressed based on screenings.

When it came to anxiety, 16% of students in the spring of 2022 said stress affected their ability to do daily activities on 11 or more days in the previous month, a steep decline from 33% in 2021.

“I know that we are very concerned about the mental health and wellness of our students, and you’re going to see that we’re really making an impact,” said Mia Lavizzo, associate principal for Student Services, before presenting a well-being report at Monday’s board meeting.

Even before the pandemic, ETHS was seeing increases in the number of students with 504 Plans, formal documents outlining how any student with a disability or a need for special accommodations will obtain equitable access to their learning environment.

The total number of students at ETHS with 504 Plans was 599 during the 2021-2022 academic year, up 215% from seven years earlier. But the pandemic also accelerated the growth of new and deeper needs for individual students, as about 20% of the student population had a 504 Plan in 2018-2019 and more than 30% did in 2021-2022.

“Part of what we’ve seen is increased need in the students who are struggling. Their struggles are more complicated. They’re more challenging,” Assistant Superintendent and Principal Taya Kinzie said. “You can see that in some of the increases in our 504 Plans, the obvious increase in health services and our psychiatric hospitalizations.”

A total of 179 students received help from some kind of psychiatric hospitalization in 2021-2022, up from 155 during the largely remote prior year, Kinzie said.

Board member Gretchen Livingston also mentioned her concerns around one data point looking at the number of students experiencing sexual violence.

According to the school’s student well-being survey, 15% of ETHS students “reported being physically forced to engage in some type of sexual activity” in the spring of 2022. Livingston urged school leaders to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence and ways to combat that kind of culture.

“This could have happened anywhere. It’s not that it’s happened here in the school,” she said. “But that seems like a pretty big number, and one that I hope we’re digging a little deeper into.”

EPD video footage sharing agreement

Board members also discussed an amendment to the school district’s longstanding agreement to share resources with the Evanston Police Department.

In January the City Council approved a change to that contract, which now will allow Police Department leaders, namely Chief Schenita Stewart and any of her designees, to access footage from the more than 500 security cameras on the ETHS campus.

The amendment permits “limited viewing” of ETHS video surveillance footage by EPD “when viewing is necessary for the City Police Department to deter or protect against an imminent and substantial threat that is likely to result in significant bodily harm or damage to School property.”

The board asked questions of Stewart and the two school resource officers from EPD assigned to the campus, Grace Carmichael and Loyce Spells. Throughout the discussion, board members lauded the officers for their engagement and positive interactions with students and staff in the building, which creates a good relationship between police and the school that is “unique,” board President Pat Savage-Williams said.

School Resource Officer Loyce Spells (left) talk to the board March 13 while EPD Chief Schenita Stewart (center) and Resource Officer Grace Carmichael listen. Credit: ETHS YouTube

Spells has worked as an SRO at ETHS for six years. He had a negative view of and relationship with law enforcement growing up, he said, which has motivated him to be a positive role model in his position. “They’re approachable, and that’s rare,” Stewart said of both Carmichael and Spells.

For example, the two officers wear business attire Monday through Thursday and school spirit gear on Fridays, rather than police uniforms, which Spells said could be intimidating or send the wrong message to students.

Board member Patricia Maunsell said she felt there are still students who feel trauma simply from the presence of police officers in the building, which can trigger memories of family members being arrested or brutalized, among other things. And Spells recognized that sometimes he and Carmichael need to give students and staff space and simply let them reach out if they ever need help.

“We’re talking about crisis today, but that is a very small, minute component to what we do every day. We do 99.9% relationship building. That is our goal, that is our focus, every single day,” Spells said. “I would prefer to speak with children about prom and homecoming than other things. We want to be viewed as an extension of family in some ways.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

Leave a comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *