Youth minister accuses Broughton High of having a ‘toxic climate’

Broughton High School is Raleigh’s oldest public school and is attended by some of the city’s wealthiest families. But the youth leader of one of the city’s largest churches accuses Broughton’s climate of being “toxic” for some students.

Bryan Lee, the minister for young people and their families at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, said Broughton pupils in his youth group had shared “traumatic” stories of the overwhelming pressure placed on them at school. Lee went to the Wake County School Board meeting this week to demand that the district take action to improve Broughton’s environment.

“I hear more first-hand stories every month and sometimes every week about how hard it is to exist inside this school — academically and socially,” Lee told the school board. “Even some of your best students at this school are facing serious mental health issues and suicide seems to be a growing solution to their problems.”

The Wake County School System declined an interview request for the story or for someone from Broughton to comment on Lee’s statements.

“We have no public data to confirm the pastor’s perception of culture in Broughton,” Lisa Luten, a spokeswoman for the Wake County school, said in an email. “We know that many high school students across the country are struggling with academic and social pressures. For this reason, our schools have programs in place to meet the social and emotional needs of students.

“If a member of the public knows of a struggling student, we urge them to contact the school to connect that student with support services.”

Lee said in an interview that the situation at Broughton is more extreme than at other schools attended by members of the Pullen Youth Group. He also said Friday that since raising his concerns publicly, Wake had scheduled a meeting with him, the Broughton manager and the district council leader.

“The unique nature of Broughton High School should be the old white wealth that dominates the narrative there and created a sense of entitlement and created a sense of expectation that I just don’t see at other schools” , said Lee.

Crowd and pressure

Broughton opened in 1929 and is located near present-day Cameron Village and serves some of Raleigh’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The school celebrates its 90th anniversary.

Broughton alumni give generously to the school in the form of scholarships, technology, and other gifts. According to the Needham Broughton Capital Foundation’s 2016 IRS tax return, the group had $703,771 in assets.

The Needham Broughton Capital Foundation did not respond to an email and phone message left by the News & Observer. Broughtons’ two PTSA co-chairs did not respond to an email message.

RAL_BryanLee_Portrait_01
Bryan Lee poses for a portrait in the garden of the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Lee cares for young people and their families and says he has heard countless stories leading him to believe that academic cultures and social services at Broughton High School are causing serious mental harm to some students. He spoke about it at a Wake County School Board meeting on Monday, May 20, 2019. Julia Wall [email protected]

For less affluent students who attend Broughton, Lee said they face social pressures such as some classmates who received BMWs for their birthdays, who regularly go on exotic vacations or who fly to New York just for dinner. .

“Those kinds of things the vast majority of students can’t begin to understand, but they’re surrounded by them day in and day out,” Lee said. “It creates this social pressure that we all have to be like that to be successful.”

Wealth, Lee said, also adds to the academic pressure where these wealthy families pay for the tutors their children need to do well in the classroom. He said it forces less affluent students to decide if they are ready to take classes that are beyond their comfort level to keep up with their studies.

“Some of the students who don’t want to submit to the academic workload that other Broughton students have put on feel rejected,” Lee said. “They feel like they’ve been labeled cowards, lazy, or stupid just because they don’t care to do their homework for six or seven hours a night in every class.”

Lack of empathy

Ariana Ellis, 17, a Broughton senior who is part of Pullen’s youth group, said the academic pressure was intense. Although Ellis said she overall enjoyed her time at Broughton, she is happy to graduate due to difficulties managing some classmates.

“Some people are so rude,” Ellis said. “People lack empathy for each other.”

During this week’s board meeting, Lee blamed pressure on Broughton for leading to three suicides this school year. Wake County school officials disputed that figure, saying only one current Broughton student had committed suicide during that time.

Luten, the district spokeswoman, said it would be irresponsible to attribute the deaths to anyone’s perception of culture in Broughton.

But Lee and Ellis say that figure includes former students who recently attended the school and another school and their deaths were felt as deeply as that of the current student. Lee said he apologized for quoting the wrong number during the meeting, but said that doesn’t take away from his feeling there’s a problem at Broughton.

Lee says he’s not saying Broughton is pushing students to kill themselves, but he thinks the climate is “definitely toxic.”

“What I’m saying is that Broughton High School — the social and academic culture there — plays a huge role in the mental health of our students,” Lee said. “I’ve heard personal stories of suicide attempts and quite a bit of self-harm happening within the school.

“Is it only the result of the school? No. Does the school play a major role in this regard? Yes.”

Teen mental health

Lee’s concerns come at a time when suicide has become the second leading cause of death in North Carolina for people ages 10 to 24, according to a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Nearly one in seven youth, or 13.8% of North Carolina youth, have planned to attempt suicide in the past year, which is very close to the national rate of plans made among youth in 2017. But 8.2% of young people in North Carolina said they had attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 7.4% nationally.

Wake has 160,471 students, including nearly 50,000 in high school. But the district says that on average, only two Wake County students die by suicide each year.

Wake School officials said trained school staff work daily to prevent suicide by identifying and helping students who have warning signs or risk factors, which can include depression, health issues mental or suicidal thoughts. Wake says it screens identified students, notifies parents/guardians and connects them with community services as needed to meet their needs.

Lee wants the school system to bring in psychologists to examine the situation in Broughton and recommend changes that will be made to improve the climate at school. Lee said he didn’t want future Broughton students “to continue down the path taken by current students.”

“It’s my goal to give people hope and a vision that this can change,” Lee said. “We must first recognize the fact that there is a problem and that it is killing our students.”

Writer Shelbi Polk contributed to this story.

How to get help

There are some warning signs of youth suicide to watch out for, including:

Talking about or making plans for suicide.

Expressing despair about the future.

Demonstrating intense/overwhelming emotional pain or distress.

Showing disturbing behavioral cues or marked behavioral changes, especially in the presence of the above warning signs.

Withdrawal or modification of social relationships/situations.

If you see warning signs, the steps Wake tells you to take include:

Ask him if he’s okay or if he’s having suicidal thoughts.

Express your concern about what you observe in their behavior.

Listen carefully and without judgment.

Tell them they are not alone and don’t leave them alone.

If you or they are concerned, refer them to further professional help. One of the places you can contact 24 hours a day is the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE.

This story was originally published May 24, 2019 5:04 p.m.

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T. Keung Hui has been covering K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. Its primary focus is Wake County, but it also covers statewide education issues.

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