HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Some parents in Hanover County are upset after a peaceful student-led protest at Patrick Henry High School ended with multiple suspensions. They are now calling on school administrators to be more sensitive to students concerned about mental health issues.
On Thursday morning, a large group of Patrick Henry students walked out of classes to hold signs outside of the school, calling attention to the mental health needs of students after a recent suicide in their school community and other tragic losses this past year.
The protest, which was not a school-approved activity, was allowed by administrators for a brief period, but when a smaller group of students did not return to their classrooms after an hour, their parents were called and the students were suspended for ten days. While school officials did not confirm the number of students disciplined, several parents tell CBS6 that more than 20 students received out-of-school suspensions.
“We’re seeing so many students under so much stress right now,” says a Patrick Henry parent who wants to remain anonymous. She says her son, who informed his parents about the protest on Wednesday night, was one of the students suspended.
While she says she understands the safety and class disruption concerns cited by school principal Chris Martinez, she believes a note sent to families, regarding the incident, was insensitive.
“It praised the students who stayed at their desks and did not go (to the protest) and I was really stunned at how tone-deaf that message was,” she says. “I shared that with the school board as well as Principal Martinez. I really believe that needs to be readdressed in another message.”
In the letter to parents, the principal also stated, “As a school and a school division, we too, are focused on mental health and have worked diligently in this area to better serve our students, families and community.”
A foundation, named in memory of a Goochland County teenager who died by suicide in December, says schools and coaches can play a vital role in helping reach students who are struggling.
13-year-old Matthew Cabral died two days after his birthday and a few weeks before Christmas. Matthew was an outgoing, bright and happy teenager, but his family believes the isolation of the pandemic led to silent mental health issues. His parents have since created the “Matthew Smiles Cabral Foundation,” to help get resources to schools and coaches regarding mental health issues.
“We’ve got to be able to get to kids and get to them quickly when they need help,” says foundation president Jennifer Stern.
Stern says the foundation is now working with school districts and private organizations to brainstorm ideas on reaching vulnerable students.
“Making sure kids have those resources, like the crisis text line, resources in the schools to know that it’s ok to not be ok and to raise your hand and know someone is going to listen and help,” Stern says.
While Patrick Henry families say they understand the stress that schools are facing, they are optimistic that school administrators will reduce the punishment for the students and will work toward finding programs to help students feel included and heard.
“I think they have learned a lot in the last few days and they’ve done some self-reflecting,” says one parent. “I think they need to share that so people understand that they do take it seriously and they are not uncomfortable dealing with an uncomfortable topic.”
For more information on the Matthew Smiles Cabral Foundation, you can find a link here.