Darien students beg school officials to rethink academic pressure: ‘We are all starting to break’

Darien High School, exterior with sign, photographed on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Darien High School, exterior with sign, photographed on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Raga Justin / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Several students pleaded with school board members to rethink the district’s academic expectations, taking the microphone at a June 14 board meeting in one last push for increased mental health support before schools close for the summer.

Their remarks to school board members serve as the latest blistering and emotional testimony on the school’s academic culture, which students on Tuesday deemed toxic in the wake of a string of tragedies at Darien High School.

In the past four months, two student suicides and a third student death have placed a renewed emphasis on the mental health of students and prompted school and town officials to promise a reevaluation of Darien’s academic and athletic expectations.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the students — all attending Darien High School — said they had all personally experienced debilitating mental health struggles and called for increased and permanent mental health support from the administration.

Student Francesca Perfumo said she started getting academic recognition in early childhood, but that the pressure to do well increased “exponentially” as she grew older. Her life now revolves around trying to be the best athlete and student so she does not let her teachers or family down, she told Board of Education members.

“Every day at school has become a competition to do better than the person sitting next to me, to prove I’m smart,” Perfumo said. “The pressure to succeed at this school is insane and now we are all starting to break.”

During periods when she felt she had burnout, especially during exams, Perfumo said she asked her coaches for a break and was told she had an upcoming school-wide vacation to look forward to. She said she was also told she had a commitment to her team.

“My mental health plummeted ... and my anxiety was skyrocketing ... I felt alone,” Perfumo said. “DHS has a toxic need to succeed, making students feel like an A is worth destroying their mental health.”

Student Patrick Jeffers said the pandemic and online learning contributed to a low point in his mental state earlier this year. At one point, he had a voice in his head telling him he was not enough and was consumed with stress and anxiety, Jeffers told the school board.

That, combined with not knowing who to turn to for help, caused Jeffers to enter a “really dark place,” he said.

Ultimately, “I did get help, I escaped this prison I created in my own mind, but a lot of students don’t have this option,” Jeffers said. “There are so many unheard voices at Darien High School .. .that don’t know how to get better.”

Jeffers and Perfumo called on teachers and coaches to be more understanding of the mental health struggles of students.

Perfumo also said while the school has trained professionals on campus, sessions with the school’s guidance counselors often feel more geared toward increasing their academic success instead of how students are feeling.

For some students, the negative effects of academic pressure started young, they said.

Student Emma Quayle said that when she was in elementary school, her math scores were not high enough for IDEA, the district’s gifted and talented program.

“By fifth grade I had already learned to equate my academic performance to my self-worth,” Quayle said. “Darien taught me to believe something was wrong with me since I wasn’t the best.”

By the time she was 13 years old, she was scared of her own mind, Quayle said.

“In 7th grade, my thoughts only got worse ... No one had any idea that I was struggling to wake up every single morning,” Quayle said. She said no one around her talked about depression or anxiety, leading Quayle to believe she was “alone and broken.”

Even now, as a junior at DHS, Quayle told board members she hyperventilates when doing timed classroom exercises and often relies on unsustainable or unhealthy practices to meet academic goals.

“I feel pathetic because I can’t do what’s expected of me in this town,” Quayle said. She called on school board members to provide safe places for students to be vulnerable, as well as limiting the number of AP and honors courses students can take.

Students also need to learn about mental health and healthy coping mechanisms as early as elementary school, Quayle said.

School board members praised the courage of students during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’d like to acknowledge how profound those statements are and how much we respect those students who got up publicly and said what I think many students are feeling,” board member Tara Ochman said.

School officials also provided a scheduled mental health update. They pointed to a series of community-wide talks from mental health professionals while the district has been in crisis response mode immediately following the past few months’ tragedies.

They have also begun tentative steps toward evaluating long-term mental health strategies, officials said.

“All four of us are here speaking as students who are struggling, students who are grieving and students who are desperate for change,” Quayle said. “We are asking you to take action and we are asking you to provide more support for students who are suffering in silence.”