The first time the 10th-grade student at O'Farrell School of Creative and Performing Arts showed up at a weekly student support group, it was only to give moral support to her boyfriend, who had elected to attend in lieu of serving after-school detention.
But on her second visit--drawn back by the comfort of some three-dozen students talking of common problems with alcohol or drugs or parents--the girl stammered out that she had contemplated suicide during the Christmas holidays.
Immediately, the school nurse, who also sits in every Tuesday, prepared to contact the parents to arrange professional help, while other students--a few of whom had also thought about taking their own lives at one time--surrounded the girl to offer their hugs, their telephone numbers and promises of support.
Two months later, the student continues to show up every Tuesday after school, chronicling her slow but steady progress in coping with home and academic life and showing that positive results can come from seeking assistance. Her mother comes regularly to a support group for O'Farrell parents, held at night twice a month.
The group that helped the girl was established last fall by O'Farrell students and administrators, an extension of the school's extensive peer counseling program, where students are trained in communication and listening techniques to seek out classmates in need of a caring hand.
Peer counseling in some fashion has been used in schools for many years, mainly to have higher-achieving students tutor students at risk of failing academically. But in the past several years, schools across the state have begun to emphasize the role that teen-agers can play in helping peers who have problems with stress, alcohol, drugs, broken families or parental abuse.
The staff at O'Farrell, a magnet school in Southeast San Diego that attracts students citywide for its performing arts curriculum, has enthusiastically endorsed the peer counseling efforts of teacher Paul Combs. His students offer help one-on-one and also run the campus Students Against Drunk Driving club, work with disabled students to make them feel more at home at O'Farrell, and set the ground rules for the Tuesday after-school sessions.
At Orange Glen High School in Escondido, teacher Darwin Bree also runs a large peer counseling effort. His students receive regular referrals from the school's adult counselors and also work with neighborhood social-service programs for teens.
Chula Vista High School students have been asked to co-sponsor a statewide peer counseling conference in San Diego this April. More than 2,000 students and teachers from across California are expected.
"All the documentation shows that, especially from junior high on, kids are influenced more by their peers than by anyone else," said Allan Bright, a project specialist with the county Office of Education. Bright has created a steering committee of educators to help schools develop peer counseling programs.
"We know that negative peer pressure can be intense, where kids succumb to alcohol and drug use and an inability to say 'no,' so here we are saying that students can bond together over issues that are positive."
Psychologist John Giebink, who heads the student health services at UC San Diego, said professional counselors "are always somewhat reluctant to allow that lay people can be effective . . . but I think there is general agreement today that these programs can be worthwhile and effective because they open up an avenue for students or people who will otherwise be reluctant to get themselves involved with professionals.
"You must constantly stress, however, that peer counselors are not professionals and that they must always be aware of getting in over their heads."
Teachers and students in the O'Farrell and Orange Glen programs readily acknowledge there are limits and that they are practicing therapy.
"We constantly harp on the fact that we are not equipped to diagnose or prescribe, that we are there to support and listen and give suggestions for referrals to send on to others who can do things," said O'Farrell's Combs, a former race-human relations counselor for the San Diego district. "But it is true that a great deal of help can be given by someone who listens and cares" in what Combs calls focused listening.
At O'Farrell, Combs--who also teaches English and sings in the San Diego Opera chorus--has about 30 students a year sign up for peer counseling. He began the course as a result of his race-human relations experiences, where he found that teachers and students can accomplish as much counseling as administrators.
"The key is to persuade kids that they can make an actual, measurable, observable difference in the way things happen on campus," Combs said.
The two-semester class teaches students communications and problem-solving techniques, how groups function, and how leaders can guide a group and improve dialogue, Combs said. There is also instruction in recognizing alcohol- and drug-related problems and various theories behind professional counseling.
"We learn to establish trust and respect for a person despite (his or her) problems," senior Cynthia Alvarez said.
Added peer counselor Rosemary Barnes: "We are taught to point out that there are other ways of dealing with problems besides taking drugs, for example. But we do it through suggesting alternatives and supporting students in seeking options . . . and telling them that we respect them for coming to us."
Heidi Vaught said that students who approach her and peer counselors "already in a sense have identified their problem, and what we try to do is get them to come around to our point of view without preaching, because they will value the solution more if we don't preach."
Attendance coordinator David Libbey, the school's on-site disciplinarian, has directed many students to peer counseling as an alternative to detention, which he found had little lasting effect for most campus violators. "I think that most kids do know right from wrong, but peer pressure to (do the wrong thing) is very, very strong and many kids are followers. . . . We're telling them that this is a way to get out of that."
Combs' class, now in its fourth year, has received powerful support from O'Farrell Principal Florence Johnson, who subscribes strongly to the theory that students should be treated as much like adults as possible.
"To me, when students come up with an idea, I really try to listen and make it come true," Johnson said. "Peer counseling works well, the kids are very, very competent, it fills a need that the (adult) district counselors could never handle due to time, and it doesn't cost us any additional money."
Johnson has a reputation among San Diego principals for having a particular interest in the emotional well-being of students, in part because of her own background in successfully adopting and raising five foster children.
"Florence has the interest and real commitment to the whole child--not that other principals don't consider that--but rather that she has strong expertise in counseling and is particularly keen about improving students' self-esteem," said Beverly Foster, the assistant school district superintendent who oversees O'Farrell.
"For peer counseling to succeed, the administration has to make it a top priority, and she has done that."
Johnson agreed to the Tuesday group after peer counselors said that some students, who were in drug rehabilitation, could use an on-campus support group. She had it broadened to include students who just wanted to talk about problems or who simply were seeking friendship. Both she and other teachers share their own experiences as well, letting students know that adults also must cope with stress and failure.
The Tuesday sessions offer no direct "should or should not" advice. Everyone is guaranteed confidentiality unless someone talks of committing a crime, of suicide, of child abuse or of being pregnant, Libbey said. A student who talks about a particularly pressing problem may be approached afterward by the nurse or Combs and asked about the possibility of seeking professional assistance.
The other day, 40 students showed up after school. Among them were recovering alcoholics, those with alcoholic parents, recovering drug addicts, some worried about child abuse, and many just present to express support for fellow students.
"I'm here because I care" was a common refrain.
Nurse Catherine Brugman shared her pain with students over her mother's recent death. A San Diego police officer who works with the school recounted painful personal events so that students would understand that she is also open and sympathetic to communication, and not a person to be seen just as an enforcer of rules.
A few students said that such open communication with their parents was "easier said than done." Another pointed out that "the resolution doesn't always happen like in 'On Golden Pond,' " the movie where an estranged daughter and father reconciled differences as he neared death.
The same problems with relationships came through at a nighttime parents' meeting. Libbey has found parents supportive of peer counseling, since parental approval is needed before a student can be assigned to the program instead of regular detention. At the night meeting, parents heard from vice principal Jean Mason, who brought her college-age daughter along to talk about the highs and lows of raising children as a single parent.
"I think parents need to see that we as teachers are not perfect either, that we cope with some of the same things they do, that they are not alone," Johnson said.
While Escondido's Orange Glen High, nestled among Eucalyptus trees on the outskirts of the North County city, at first seems a world away from O'Farrell's urban core, the need for peer counseling is just as great to improve attendance and avoid problems, school administrators said.
"The peer counselors are terrific in being out on campus, with their sensors out, to find situations before they become crises, as sort of an early warning system," said Bea Warner, an adult counselor at the school. Warner told of one student who came to her terribly upset over having broken up with a boyfriend.
"Her mother and all her friends told her just to forget it and go on," Warner said. "But she needed a peer counselor who took more of an impartial attitude. . . . I hope the solution is the same as that suggested by her friends, but it's important that the answer come on her own."
At Orange Glen, the students in Darwin Bree's class--after going through training similar to that at O'Farrell--have students they see on a weekly basis. Many are referred by the adult counselors, others by teachers who worry when a student becomes lethargic and spends time in class with a head on the desk.
"As we make referrals to a peer counselor, we make it clear that we are very aware of who is good to refer and who needs therapeutic intervention by a psychologist," Warner said. "I am not giving them students with potentially major disorders."
Fellow counselor Joan Freitas praised the peer counselors for their participation in the school's crisis management team, which has dealt with the aftermath of three suicides by students during the past year. Some classmates take blame for the deaths; others have contemplated a similar act.
"The peer counselors know how to take charge, such as determining that seniors respond in a different way than ninth-graders and need different kinds of intervention," Freitas said. "We have revised our program as a result of that."
Peer counselor Larry Martineau said that a key element during training is learning about yourself. "You learn what your limits are," Martineau said. "We also learn that we have to support each other as peer counselors," which instructor Bree does during weekly debriefings with his class each Friday.
"The closeness we have as a group is incredible," senior Ed Simm said. "When we walk into class, everyone gives each other a hug." At the end of training sessions each year, Bree takes the class on an Outward Bound wilderness experience, which he said "binds" the students together even more tightly.
In addition, Bree has professional counselors from Escondido's Neighborhood Recovery Center and Escondido Youth Encounter work with the class. Several students also serve as counselors for the community programs, which Bree said gives them additional skills in dealing with teen-agers. The class periodically visits junior high schools and members talk about drugs as well as give orientations for eighth-graders who will attend Orange Glen the next year.
"A lot of students in school these days are hurting from something and teachers don't have the time or training to intervene," Orange Glen teacher Marilyn Tam said. "While peer counseling doesn't always succeed, I have never seen a negative impact."
Said O'Farrell's Johnson: "I think peer counseling will improve attendance and morale, and especially in getting students to take more responsibility for their role in the educational system."
The O'Farrell 10th-grade student who shared her thoughts of suicide would agree.
"I have been helped to get motivated more to work in class, although doing well in school has not been my No. 1 priority," she said. "But the group has given me some confidence to confront the academic side and I think it has helped me understand my parents a bit more.
"I really need the group."