Mike Murphy

The recent article “Study says mental health problems among issues plaguing Idaho students,” by Betsy Z. Russell of the Idaho Press was quite interesting. It dealt with the results of an extensive study jointly sponsored by Hewlett Packard and Idaho Business for Education to develop a plan for improving Idaho’s education system.

If you have been following education news over the last decade or two you know that this is just the latest in a constant string of studies, committees, surveys, seances, etc., all with the goal of setting goals to improve Idaho students’ readiness for post-secondary education and the “jobs of the future,” a future which is quickly approaching.

Despite all the efforts, it’s clear that nothing much has changed regarding college readiness. One indication of this is SAT scores statewide have dropped steadily over the last four years with the latest scores indicating that only 31 percent of Idaho’s juniors are college ready. Another is that post-secondary enrollment numbers are stagnant.

So, what did this particular collection of experts and the 2,000 Idahoans surveyed come up with as the yellow brick road to readiness? One recommendation caught my eye: “Addressing mental health issues that are affecting Idaho schools.”

A tall order, no doubt.

Recently, I went back to Nebraska and visited folks in the town where I had taught middle and high school students for 16 years. In a discussion with friends who are still teaching at my former school, they listed all the ways the school had declined in quality in the 20 years since my departure.

After pointing out several specific changes in the students and the community itself, one of the teachers summed up the decline this way: “Nowadays, the kids run the show.” What exactly did she mean?

Well, here is a simplistic way of explaining it: Parents are afraid of their kids; school administrators are afraid of the parents; and teachers are afraid of the administrators, the parents, and the kids.

For parents, it’s a fear of hurting their kids’ feelings or self-esteem. School administrators are afraid of losing their jobs. And for teachers, it’s fear of both above.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at one situation: students’ cell phones in the schools. For local School District 25 the cell phone rules are spelled out deep inside the 464-page district handbook.

According to the district rules, it’s possible that a child in school could have access to his or her cell phone during every non-instructional minute of the school day from 1st through 12th grades. On top of that, anyone who thinks kids aren’t using their phones during instructional time in violation of the rules must have been born yesterday.

Regarding district cell phone rule violations, there are four levels of offense, and not until the fourth level is there the possibility of a student losing his phone privileges. My bet is that by the fourth ‘official’ violation there are countless undetected violations.

Making the whole situation more cumbersome are the seven steps in the “Chain of Custody” rules that teachers must follow if they catch students in violation of the cell phone rules — phew!

Can you blame any teachers who might opt to overlook an offense to avoid the hassle of dealing with the kid, the kid’s parents, and the administration? Not me — been there, done that.

Now, back to the recent study’s recommendation regarding dealing with mental health issues that are affecting Idaho’s schools, the “angst-ridden students” as one member of the study put it.

One definition of angst is “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread” while another is “a feeling of persistent worry about something trivial.” Aren’t those the very feelings created by the persistent use of cell phones and the internet?

There is a mountain of research-based literature reporting the negative effects of adolescent and teen cell phone use. Everything from anxiety and depression to reduced self-esteem.

If students’ personal use of their cell phones in school is detrimental to their mental health and, thus, their post-secondary and jobs of the future readiness, you would think that a rule banning the phones from school would be a no-brainer, and that all stakeholders would be on board with that.

But nope.

Try to have such a rule and parents will raise Cain with this classic line of reasoning: “My kid needs access to his phone in case of an emergency!”

Yet, as one therapist who deals with teen cell phone-caused problems put it, “Teenagers hate being told what to do. Parents have to take action.”

The cell phone situation is just one example of ‘the kids running the show.’ A similar scenario is played out time and time again with a whole gamut of school rules. Nearly all of which hurt academic excellence in the long run.

So which Idaho school is doing an excellent job of preparing its students for post-secondary readiness and jobs of the future? Looks like the clear winner there is Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy which is annually recognized as the best high school in Idaho and among the top 100 in the nation. The school’s SAT and ACT scores are consistently the highest in Idaho.

Charter Academy’s website notes that “Between 90 percent and 100 percent of Academy graduates enroll in post-secondary education within the first two years after graduation.”

Oh, and here’s the school’s cell phone policy: “Cell phones, iPods, laptops, tablets, “smart” devices, Bluetooth-capable devices, and all other personal electronic devices are not permitted during school hours (7:55 to 2:45, including passing time and lunch).”

Something tells me that the kids do not run the show at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy.

Mike Murphy of Pocatello is an award-winning columnist whose articles are syndicated by Senior Wire. He recently published a book titled “Tortoise Crossing – Expect Long Delays,” which is a collection of 100 of his favorite columns. It is available on Amazon.com.