WAUSAU – Early on in her high school career, someone told Kayley McColley she should be picking cotton.
McColley, who is now a senior at Wausau West High School, is biracial. She said she considers herself lucky because on the whole, her experiences with racism haven’t been as severe as those of other people of color.
But even in the cafeteria at school, she said, “people just have some type of remark to say.”
McColley is one of 25 students between ninth and 12th grades who were interviewed for a video series about life for teenagers in Marathon County. Called “Marathon County Teen,” the documentary highlights a range of issues that high school students grapple with, from drugs and mental illness to race and socioeconomic status.
The documentary is an initiative by Healthy Marathon County based on data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which monitors health-risk behaviors among high school students. The series, produced by local filmmaker Laura Hunt, aims to go beyond the data and highlight students’ views on different issues.
In “Marathon County Teen,” students explain that social media makes it difficult to get away from bullying, which may start in school but can follow a teen everywhere in the form of digital comments. They talk about drug and alcohol use among their peers and how most parents don’t know what their kids do on the weekends. They detail struggles with mental illness and stress. People make “jokes” about students of different races that aren’t really jokes, they say.
Social class also emerged as a prominent issue — one that students brought up in every interview, Hunt told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. The video highlights rifts that occur because of the clothing people wear and tells the stories of those who work outside of school or don’t have computers at home.
McColley said money also creates divisions based on the opportunities students can access, such as involvement in clubs and scholarships for college.
“If you’ve always had those opportunities, you’re not going to question it, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult to see why people who haven’t had those privileges would be at a disadvantage,” she said.
Healthy Marathon County approached Hunt at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, and it took her a year to put the film together. The project was funded by the Marathon County Health Department, AOD Partnership, Aspirus, Marshfield Clinic Health System and Prevent Suicide Marathon County.
Aaron Ruff, a public health educator with the health department, said the documentary gives these students a voice and offers firsthand perspective on what it’s like to be in high school.
“These are individuals just like anybody else who have a variety of things going on in their life,” he said. “How can you just be there to listen to them, support them, offer that positive relationship, even just if it’s a conversation?”
Ruff also pointed to Wausau’s desire to attract young professionals and said if the community wants to do that, it needs to listen to its youth now.
“We’ve got to take care of our own youth because these are the students we want to come back and live here and embrace this community,” he said.
The 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey gathered input from 2,000 students aged 13 and over in 10 Marathon County public school districts about the biggest problems they face. Almost one third of students reported being bullied at school, while 29 percent described their mental health as not good. Twenty-six percent of the students had consumed an alcoholic drink in the past 30 days. New surveys have been completed for a new Youth Risk Behavior Survey; the results will be released in January.
These students have strong voices and should be used as a resource, Hunt said, noting that they’re struggling with many of the same problems as the entire county.
McColley agrees. Teens’ ideas tend to be dismissed, she said, particularly when it comes to more serious issues, but they do have thoughts that are worth listening to. She hopes the film will open people’s eyes to what goes on in high school today.
“I just hope that people can really consider where teens are at now and maybe move past some of the misconceptions they may have about us,” she said.