Superintendents report surprising observances of youth behavior

Whidbey superintendents painted a bleak picture of students’ mental and behavioral health.

Whidbey public school district superintendents painted a bleak picture of students’ mental and behavioral health during a recent panel discussion.

Moderated by Island County Public Health Director Shawn Morris, the panel was part of a county Board of Health meeting convened last week. Oak Harbor Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dwight Lundstrom, Coupeville School District Superintendent Steve King and his successor, Shannon Leatherwood, all weighed in on the topic.

When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the needs of students, the superintendents had some alarming information to share.

Lundstrom said there are now more problems with attendance than before. A new school board policy prohibiting cell phones in the classroom, though, has helped “a ton” with instruction. In addition, he said school nurses have noticed an increase in “sexual behavior.”

King added that he has seen use of fentanyl “popping up a little bit” on the secondary campus. The district has also witnessed a lot more social, emotional and behavioral issues in primary grades, such as inadequate potty-training.

“Kids aren’t nearly as ready for school as they were pre-pandemic,” he said.

Leatherwood said the access to social media has caused a lot of the sexual implications that have happened at all levels, from elementary to high school.

Delving more into the subject of social media, King said he was really concerned about students feeling lonelier than ever and the effects of new technology like artificial intelligence.

Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair, who is a member of the Board of Health, worried about kids being rewarded with more screen time for finishing their work. Lundstrom said his district is trying not to use technology as a reward for students, but that isn’t always the case at home.

“We have families that have used iPads and iPhones to pacify for many, many years, and so that’s what kids come to us accustomed to,” he said.

King agreed that kids don’t see getting to go read a book as a reward for their hard work.

Morris pointed out that the U.S. surgeon general recently called for a warning label on social media platforms and asked the superintendents if the districts are pursuing anything related. In response, King advocated for looking at parents as “technology immigrants” compared to their kids, who are constantly hopping around to different social media platforms and enjoying a certain degree of privacy until the adults catch up with them.

“One quote I recently heard from a psychologist was, ‘We are overprotecting our children in the real world and underprotecting them in the digital world,’” King said. “And I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now and really summarizes our concerns around the health of our youth.”

Lundstrom agreed with this sentiment, adding that kids are allowed to “go to Mars” in the digital sphere.

“They have access to pornography and all kinds of fun stuff online, and they’re sitting right next to you when they’re doing that, and we worry about them riding across the street to get an ice cream cone,” he said.

Both he and King supported more unsupervised free play for kids. King said he has noticed that within the past few years, fewer kids are out sledding during snow days. He sees kids as young as kindergarten age with smart phones and wondered if there was a way to delay that usage until a later age.

Both superintendents spoke about the importance of school district partnerships with mental health support staff and nonprofit organizations. King said the lack of school-based mental health counselors following the pandemic is a huge loss.

“It was really unfortunate that they were taken away right at the time our kids need it most,” he said.

Lundstrom said he has seen people that are just struggling financially and needing food assistance, which is available to kids through a backpack meal program.

The panel discussion coincided with a presentation about the results of the 2023 Healthy Youth Survey, which indicated that absenteeism has increased across all grades between 2018 and 2023. Though those surveyed reported an increase in substance use compared to 2021, Island County youth reported a decrease in feeling sad or hopeless compared to previous years.