Taylor Berhow

Mandan High School graduate Taylor Berhow, right, speaks to students at the school on Nov. 21 about drinking and driving and its consequences. 

Society changes over the years and issues that plagued us 20 years ago diminish as new problems arise. A national study looking at risky behavior by students shows youth confronting new demons.

The study found fewer North Dakota students are involved in underage sex, drinking, tobacco and distracted driving. That’s good news for parents and society as a whole. On the downside, more students are attempting suicide and electronic bullying is on the rise.

The number of North Dakota students who reportedly attempted suicide went up from 12 percent in 2013 to 14 percent this year, according to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of attempted suicides has been on the rise since 2005.

About 2,100 random North Dakota students from 61 public schools took the survey and it indicated electronic bullying increased to 19 percent. Feelings of hopelessness reached a decade high of nearly 29 percent among high school students. Why should so many young people feel so down?

Unfortunately, there are still too many broken homes, families struggling financially and drug problems, especially with the increase in opiates. North Dakota has traditionally ranked high in binge drinking, especially among youth. That can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.

Schools can’t be expected to resolve all the problems, but they can play a role.

"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," Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, told the Forum News Service.

Baesler pointed out the state has a policy on bullying, adding that the policy apparently isn’t working. She told the Forum the state needs to make a cultural shift to let people know bullying is not acceptable.

In Bismarck earlier this school year there were public complaints over the district’s policies on bullying and harassment. In response, the Bismarck School Board agreed to form a task force to review the district’s policies and identify areas of improvement. The task force includes parents, administrators, teachers and board members. "There is probably more prevention that we could do," School Board President Karl Lembke said at the time.

The Bismarck complaint involved a middle school student, so the problems are occurring at an early age.

It’s a difficult situation for school districts. How do you monitor whether a student is bullying someone through their smartphone and what’s the school’s authority if it happens after school? Students are encouraged to report bullying if it happens to them or someone else. Not all kids are willing to do so. Hopefully, the Bismarck task force can find ways to improve the district’s policies.

Schools across the state have been bringing in speakers to address issues confronting students. Groups such as Students Against Destructive Decisions, SADD, have worked with students to avoid alcohol, drugs and other bad decisions. Last month Taylor Berhow talked to Mandan High School students about how his driving drunk resulted in the deaths of three of his friends. Berhow, 29, is a MHS graduate and serving a prison sentence for the fatal accident. He’s young enough for the students to relate to his bad decisions.

It’s going to take action like this inside and outside the schools to stop bullying and suicides. As a society we should be able to teach our children that bullying is wrong. We also should be able to show them that life isn’t so dismal that suicide is a solution. The behavior survey shows us the problems, now we have to find the solutions.

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