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Anne Arundel school board revises class rank proposal, asks for mental health task force

Lauren Lumpkin
Contact Reporterllumpkin@capgaznews.com

New policy under consideration by the Anne Arundel County Board of Education would allow high schools to select valedictorians and salutatorians based on qualities like character and leadership rather than solely on grade-point average.

The measure is coupled with efforts to dismantle the class rank system. A previously proposed policy change moved to end the practice of conferring valedictorian and salutatorian status onto students, as well.

Josie Urrea, vice president and student member of the board, proposed the new policy to address concerns from the community about eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian status — the top two spots in a graduating class. She said she hopes her system will produce more “well-rounded” representatives for each high school.

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Under the proposal, schools would continue to honor those who qualify for Latin Honors. But students who receive summa cum laude recognition — a weighted GPA of 4.3 or higher — can apply to be considered for valedictorian and salutatorian after completing seven semesters of high school.

Then, the valedictorian and salutatorian would be selected based on character, leadership, scholarship and service — all pillars of the National Honor Society. If the policy is adopted, the application and selection process will be determined by the superintendent.

The board will vote to implement the measure June 5.

Schools Superintendent George Arlotto told board members he did not support Urrea’s proposal.

“I can’t envision the amount of subjectively that will have to go into a process like this,” he said.

Students can display qualities like leadership in several different ways, from captaining a sports team to being cast the lead role in a school play. Arlotto said it could be difficult to judge students based on the categories set forth by Urrea.

Board members who supported Urrea’s effort cited concerns surrounding equity and mental health. Students have called the class rank system “detrimental” to their mental health.

Urrea said the system pits students against each other.

Mental health task force

In response to growing incidents of depression, anxiety and self-harm in the county schools, board members asked Arlotto to assemble a mental heath task force.

The group will be tasked with exploring methods to addressing mental illness.

Board members called on Arlotto to present a plan for the task force at the body’s July 10 meeting and convene the task force by early September.

Melissa Ellis, who represents District 4, called for the creation of the task force and pointed to recent student suicides, as well as concerns about the presence of mental illness in young people.

The number of students who have threatened to harm themselves has more than doubled in the past five years.

The school district saw a 27 percent increase in police-initiated emergency petitions, which allow violent or suicidal individuals to receive emergency treatment, between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years — from 113 to 144, data from the police shows.

“Because of the growing concern and the amount of outcry there has been coming directly to this board, I would like this board to be intimately involved and spearhead this effort on this issue,” Ellis said.

“I want this issue to get our full attention and, again, it is a tremendous amount of work to be done and it needs to go very deep.”

The task force — which would include parents, students, area behavioral health specialists, representatives from the county Crisis Response Team, and school system counselors and psychologists — would begin meeting in late September, Ellis said.

“I’m trying to bring everyone together under one roof to work together,” the Millersville resident said. “There are undoubtedly factors within the schools, but there’s the community piece, the home piece. I want to bring it all together.”

The decision comes after student-led efforts to raise awareness about mental health.

Juniors at Severna Park High School have asked county school leaders to establish a policy to automatically deploy the county’s Crisis Response Team into schools after traumatic events, require middle and high schools to host two mental health assemblies each year, and to review the structure and workload of mental health professionals in schools.

School officials have not publicly agreed to implement any of those initiatives.

Members of the would present suggestions to the Board of Education in May 2020, according to the timeline proposed by Ellis.

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