Silicon Valley school board races focus on mental health, drugs
Candidates running for school boards in the Alum Rock Union School District, East Side Union High School District and Franklin-McKinley School District addressed educational priorities on mental health and substance use in a community forum last week. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Santa Clara County school board candidates zeroed in on student mental health and substance use at a recent community-hosted forum.

    Dozens of attendees turned out for a virtual forum last week organized by the African American Community Services Agency, SOMOS Mayfair, Vietnamese American Roundtable, Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley and Latinos United for a New America. School board hopefuls discussed student mental health services and staffing needs, as well as tackling rising drug use among youth.

    A total of 12 candidates across three school districts participated in the forum. Six out of eight candidates for Alum Rock Union School District attended, including incumbents Ernesto Bejarano, Minh Pham and Andres Quintero, as well as challengers Ricardo Garcia, Minh Nguyen and Omar Vasquez. Incumbent Linda Chavez and challenger Joseph Corona were absent.

    Five out of six candidates for Franklin-McKinley School District attended, including incumbents Manuel F. Martinez and Rudy Rodriguez, alongside challengers Milan Balinton, Marc Cooper and Tammy Lariz. Challenger Steven Sanchez was absent. One out of four candidates running in the East Side Union High School District attended: incumbent Lorena Chavez. Incumbents J. Manuel Herrera and Van Le were absent, as well as challenger Peter Pham.

    The goal of the forum was to ensure voters are informed on who will lead educational policy in their communities for the next four years, said Lavere Foster, moderator and associate director of the African American Community Services Agency.

    “We want to provide our community with the space to be able to engage, to listen to (candidates), to ask questions and really understand who we are trying to elect for certain roles here in our community,” Foster said.

    Student mental health

    All candidates agreed on the urgency of addressing student mental health, especially as COVID-19 leaves lingering impacts on families. Anxiety and depression skyrocketed among students during the pandemic. The candidates pushed for a multifaceted approach to providing mental health services, from expanding programs to retaining and hiring more mental health counselors.

    Alum Rock Union School District candidate Minh Nguyen said student mental health is directly tied to ongoing teacher shortages. The demand for substitute teachers continues to be a problem. During the pandemic some school districts asked mental health counselors to fill in.

    “When students either don’t have teachers that they see consistently, when they’re faced with a revolving door of substitute teachers or teachers in and out of the classroom… It makes it much harder for them, for any adult on campus to notice them and see them and direct them to those services,” Nguyen said.

    Franklin-McKinley School District incumbent Rudy Rodriguez and challenger Milan Balinton said a student’s mental health requires collaboration between districts and community organizations to provide services, such as on-site family resource centers.

    Both Ernesto Bejarano and Lorena Chavez, incumbents from Alum Rock Union School District and East Side Union High School District respectively, said student mental health should include a range of socioemotional educational programs and services, from counseling to quiet spaces on campuses.

    “We’ve set up a system that will support our students and our staff, addressing the needs of the students,” Chavez said. “Sometimes a student just needs to go to a quiet classroom, (they) need a breather.”

    Districts can work to retain mental health staff by providing direct support through training programs, said Franklin-McKinley School District candidate Tammy Lariz.

    Substance use

    The school board hopefuls discussed creative approaches to addressing the rise in substance use among students. During the pandemic, overdose-related deaths for teenagers ages 15 through 19 increased, including fentanyl-related deaths. While overdoses on school campuses are rare, districts are phasing in cautionary measures, such as Naloxone training and distribution in case a student overdoses.

    Addressing substance use starts with education, such as lessons on the physical effects of drug use, said Marc Cooper, a Franklin-McKinley School District candidate.

    Both Omar Vasquez and Ricardo Garcia, challengers in the Alum Rock Union School District, said school districts can invest in after-school programs to fill the gap between leaving class and going home with arts or athletics activities, in order to combat substance use among students.

    “The hours between 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. are the highest problem hours for teenagers,” Garcia said. “We need to double down on those after-school programs… I’m a big believer in relationships to combat this resurgence of drugs in our communities.”

    Substance use is also tied to mental health and wellness, said Minh Pham and Andres Quintero, both Alum Rock Union School District incumbents. Districts can rely on counseling, as well as community partners to tackle the crisis.

    Board members also have a responsibility to ensure districts address substance use among students through non-punitive measures, said Manuel F. Martinez, Franklin-McKinley School District incumbent. This year’s Silicon Valley Pain Index shows school discipline disproportionately impacts students of color compared to white students.

    “There is a mentality that the board can absolutely set that says, ‘This is how we’re going to be with discipline,’” Martinez said. “Not everything is a crime.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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