Youth minister says Broughton High School is ‘toxic’ for students’ mental health

Youth minister says ‘toxic’ culture at Broughton High School hurts students’ mental health

Bryan Lee, the youth pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, told the Wake County school board that the social and academic climate at Broughton High School is toxic for students, citing stories of members of his youth group.
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Bryan Lee, the youth pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, told the Wake County school board that the social and academic climate at Broughton High School is toxic for students, citing stories of members of his youth group.

Broughton High School is Raleigh’s oldest public school and is attended by some of the city’s most affluent families. But the youth leader of one of the city’s most prominent churches charges that the climate at Broughton is “toxic” for some students.

Bryan Lee, the minister to youth and their families at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, says Broughton students in his youth group have shared “traumatic” stories about the crushing pressure placed on them at the school. Lee went to this week’s Wake County school board meeting to demand that the district take steps to improve Broughton’s environment.

“I hear more stories firsthand monthly and sometimes weekly about how difficult it is to exist inside of that school — academically and socially,” Lee told the school board. “Even some of your best students at that school face serious mental health concerns and suicide seems to be a growing solution to their problems.”

The Wake County school system declined a request to provide an interview for the story or to have someone from Broughton comment on Lee’s statements.

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

“If any member of the public is aware of a student that is struggling, 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 Pullen’s youth group. He also said Friday that since he raised his concerns publicly that Wake has scheduled a meeting with him, Broughton’s principal and the district’s head of counseling.

“The unique nature of Broughton High School would have to be the old white wealth that dominates the narrative there and has created a sense of entitlement and has created a sense of expectation that I just do not see at other schools,” Lee said.

Affluence and pressure

Broughton opened in 1929 and is located near what is now Cameron Village and serves some of Raleigh’s most affluent neighborhoods. The school is celebrating its 90th anniversary.

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

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

Bryan Lee poses for a portrait in the garden at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Lee ministers to youth and their families and says he’s heard countless stories leading him to believe the academic and social cultures at Broughton High School are causing severe harm to the mental health of some students. He spoke about it at a Wake County school board meeting on Monday, May 20, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

For the less affluent students who attend Broughton, Lee said that they’re confronted with social pressures such as some classmates who got a BMW for their birthday, who go on exotic vacations on a regular basis or fly up to New York just to have dinner.

“These types of things, the vast majority of students can’t begin to fathom but they’re surrounded by it day in and day out,” Lee said. “It creates this social pressure that we’ve all got to be like that to be successful.”

The affluence, Lee said, also adds to the academic pressure where these wealthy families pay for the tutors that their children need to be successful in class. He said it’s forcing the less affluent students to decide if they’re willing to take classes that are beyond their comfort level to keep up academically.

“Some of the students who don’t want to submit themselves to the academic workload that other Broughton students have submitted to feel outcast,” Lee said. “They feel like they’ve been labeled as slack, as lazy or as dumb just because they do not care to get into doing homework for six and seven hours a night in every course.”

Lack of empathy

Ariana Ellis, 17, a Broughton senior who is in Pullen’s youth group, said the academic pressure has been intense. While Ellis said she’s overall enjoyed her time at Broughton, she is glad to be graduating because of difficulties dealing with some classmates.

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

During this week’s board meeting, Lee charged that the pressure at Broughton has led to three suicides this school year. Wake County school officials have disputed the figure, saying that only one current Broughton student has committed suicide in that time period.

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

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

Lee says he’s not saying that Broughton is causing students to commit suicide, but he feels the climate is “definitely toxic.”

“What I’m saying is that Broughton High School — the social and academic culture there — is playing a significant role on the mental health of our students,” Lee said. “I’ve heard the personal stories of attempted suicides and quite a bit of self-harm that is going on within the school.

“Is that a result of the school solely? No. Does the school play a major factor in that? 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 by the federal Centers For Disease Control.

Nearly one in seven young people, or 13.8 percent of young North Carolinians made a plan to attempt suicide within the last year, which is very close to the national rate of plans made among youths in 2017. But 8.2 percent of North Carolina youth reported that they had attempted suicide within the last year, compared to 7.4 percent 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 every year die by suicide.

Wake school officials said trained school staff work daily to prevent suicide by identifying and assisting students who show warning signs or risk factors, which can include depression, mental health concerns, or thoughts of suicide. Wake says it screens identified students, notifies parents/guardians, and connect them with community services when appropriate to address their needs.

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

“It’s my goal to actually give people hope and a vision that it can change,” Lee said. “First we’ve got to acknowledge the fact that there is a problem and that it’s killing our students.”

Staff writer Shelbi Polk contributed to this story.

How to get help

There are some youth suicide warning signs to be on the lookout for, including:

Talking about or making plans for suicide.

Expressing hopelessness about the future.

Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress.

Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the warning signs above.

Withdrawal from or changing in social connections/situations.

If you see any warning signs, steps Wake says you can take include:

Ask if they are OK or if they are having thoughts of suicide.

Express your concern about what you are observing in their behavior.

Listen attentively and non-judgmentally.

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

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

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T. Keung Hui has covered 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. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.