A national study says fewer North Dakota students are taking part in risky behavior involving underage sex, drinking, tobacco use and distracted driving, but state educators say more work is needed as reports of electronic bullying and attempted suicide continue to climb.
The number of North Dakota students who said they attempted suicide went up from 12 percent in 2013 to 14 percent this year, according to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results initiated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an increase that has been noted since 2005, according to the biennial survey.
“We really need to decide what we can do as a school system and as a state to make sure our students are feeling engaged with life around them, make sure they are feeling hopeful about their future and drill down into what is causing them to feel hopeless,” said Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction.
About 2,100 random students from 61 public schools in North Dakota participated in the survey. Behaviors including smoking, texting and driving and drinking have dropped among high school students, according to the survey.
Students said electronic bullying increased to 19 percent, and feelings of hopelessness hit a decade high of nearly 29 percent among high schoolers.
North Dakota has a policy on bullying, but Baesler said students have reported to her that bullying is still happening in school. It just may not be reported as much, she said.
“Obviously, that policy is not working,” she said, adding North Dakota has to make a cultural shift to let people know bullying is not acceptable. “Our students need to know that school is the safest place that they can go to.”
The anonymous survey can be useful for school districts, said Sarah Shimek, character education and prevention coordinator for Grand Forks Public Schools. Years of education on smoking and texting and driving have helped reduce student-use numbers, she said.
“We always want to pay attention to those results,” she said. “That’s how we identify where we need to focus our sources.”
The increase in feelings of hopelessness, bullying and attempted suicide reported by students to the survey are alarming, Shimek said. Schools across North Dakota have hosted programs, classes and speakers in an effort to educate the public and student body, especially in recent years.
Grafton Public Schools Superintendent Darren Albrecht said education is important, but the school also focuses on developing a relationship with children and parents, as well as making sure students know they have a support group and someone to speak with.
“We have to extend beyond the classroom,” he said.
People have become more open to talking about mental health problems, said Jeff Olson, superintendent of Four Winds Community School in Fort Totten, N.D. He and others noted how state leadership, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and first lady Kathryn Helgaas, have advocated for mental health and addiction awareness, helping open doors for further discussion.
Fighting bullying and suicide is bigger than a school issue, Olson said.
“It isn’t just a teacher or administrator issue,” he said. “It’s an everybody issue.”
Prevention is effective, Shimek said as she pointed to the reduced numbers for teen smoking and distracted driving. While there is no easy answer, it begins with education and letting people know they can reach out for help, she added.
“We all need to listen and we all need to be mentors, in some way, shape or form, to young people,” she said.