School responds after second student death


Printed with permission of Lacey Wood Photography

Jonah Anschell ’23 poses for his yearbook photo during the 2022-2023 school year. Anschell passed away on April 19 from suicide.

Davis Marks and Grant Park

The school enacted new academic policies and mental health initiatives intended to support students following the deaths of Jordan Park ’25 and Jonah Anschell ’23 in March and April, respectively.

On the day following the announcement of Anschell’s death by suicide, Head of Upper School Beth Slattery informed upper school students via email that grades could no longer drop during fourth quarter.

“The floor is the grade of record published for the third quarter,” Slattery wrote in the email. “Students are expected to take assessments, turn in homework, papers [and] projects, but without fear that their grade could be negatively affected. We want them to be able to continue to have the ability to learn without the added stress and worry of a negative impact to their end of year grades.”

Science Teacher Yanni Vourgourakis ’90 said the grade floor provides students the chance to relax in an otherwise stressful academic environment.

“Most students have, predictably, just tuned out,” Vourgourakis said. “Others, however, have just kept on being who they have always been, hard working and motivated. With the pressure off you really see who your students are. Those who are inherently interested keep on working, as do those who are competitive by nature and just want to do the best they can; others let off. It is also a chance for students to see what actually motivates them. Many find they just don’t like how it feels to do poorly even if it does not impact their grade. Others have found that doing well is important for them simply because they want the respect of their instructors.”

Additionally, the school has planned field days, held chalk decorating on the Quad, brought puppies to campus and hosted Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) counselors to support the AAPI community Park was a part of. .

Counselor Michelle Bracken said while individually supporting students is important, the counseling team is working to guide the community as a whole.

“We’re good at one-on-one conversations, and we have a lot of counselors here, but we need to focus on building community,” Bracken said. “This school can be individualistic and competitive, so we need to focus on building a community of empathy. When we have tragedies like this in our community, we’re really good at coming together, but how do we do that in general? One thing that’s come out of this is thinking about ways to promote community, such as playing on the field together and doing some of those normal things that we don’t normally make time for.”

Peer Support Trainee Ellie Whang ’24 said she appreciates the effort the school has made to support students during this time.

“With such difficult and heartbreaking events, the school has responded in the best way they could’ve, given the circumstances,” Whang said. “With a campus of around 900 students, I think it’s important to remember and acknowledge that everyone processes grief in different speeds and ways, so it was almost impossible for the school to meet absolutely everyone where they were at, leading the administration to do the next best thing, which was emphasizing the support and resources we have on campus so that each student is able to have a space where they can process their feelings. I recognize that other students may disagree with me in the sense that they felt the school didn’t respond in an appropriate way, but I think with events like these, there is no ‘right’ way to handle them, and all we can do now is support each other in these tough times.”

President Rick Commons said the community must work together to heal after losing two students.

“It’s critical for us as an institution to grow and evolve in ways that respond to the tragedies we’ve experienced,” Commons said. “I think that our community of parents and students recognize that the mental health and emotional health challenges are not localized at Harvard-Westlake [but] are broad challenges for adolescents that seem to be afflicting families across the country right now. We are experiencing enormous and tragic pain that is associated with the larger problem, which doesn’t have us looking away from it, but has us looking right at it and recognizing that we have to evolve as we think about Jonah and Jordan.”

Sarah Parmet ’25 said she has noticed teachers being more flexible and supportive in recent months.

“My teachers have been very compassionate and understanding, and most now check in with us regularly,” Parmet said. “Even if they can’t help us with everything that we’re going through, it’s good to know that they care. I think our community [is] somewhat stressed, but having the third quarter floor [on grades] and optional final exams are helping to relieve that. There will always be outliers, and I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that overall, the new changes have been beneficial.”