Dear South Dakota,

I heard you recently passed a bill to help ensure students have their privacy respected, and I wanted to say "thanks!"


I do, however, have a few concerns I hope you can help me with. I was reading through the bill, appropriately titled, "An Act to restrict access to certain restrooms and locker rooms in public schools," and while it’s not the sexiest title (you can’t even make an acronym out of it — I mean … AATRATCRALRIPS?), that’s not really the focus. The important thing is that it ensures student privacy and, as Republican state Sen. David Omdahl said, "to preserve the innocence of our young people."

Photos via iStock.

I, too, think it’s important that we preserve the innocence of our young people, which is why I wanted to ask a few things about the bill before the governor decides whether he'll sign or veto. Let’s start with the obvious questions.

If you define "biological sex" as "the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth," I have to ask what category you place people who either haven’t had their chromosomes tested (which, I don’t know about you, but I certainly haven’t; that’s not something they do to newborns) or people with "anatomy" (very vague) that falls somewhere outside the male/female binary (as much as 1% of the population)?

Here's that section from your bill:

"BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:

Section 1. That chapter 13–24 be amended by adding a NEW SECTION to read:

The term, biological sex, as used in this Act, means the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth."



This next part came to my attention because, well, I’m just curious what this has to do with "preserving innocence" or privacy? Do kids still take showers in schools? That don’t have private stalls? It’s been a while since I was in school, but I can’t remember a single time anybody in my grade school or high school used the showers after gym class. Most people just showered at home, I think.

I decided to run a very informal poll, and yep, it seems as though open showers are a thing of the past.


And when it comes to restrooms, I’ve never seen anybody’s genitals (nor had the opportunity to test their DNA) while using the bathroom. I’m a firm believer that if you’re seeing others’ genitals while you use the bathroom, then you’re, well, bathrooming wrong.

And I’m curious how you plan to test students’ anatomy and/or chromosomes. That is, how will you enforce this new law? Will there be genital checks upon entering locker rooms? Do students need to give a blood sample? Surely you have some system in place. I’m sure you wouldn’t pass a law without  —  well, who knows?

But again, from your bill:

"Section 2. That the code be amended by adding a NEW SECTION to read:

Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex. In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex."

Actually, the more I think about it, the more it seems like this bill actively wipes away innocence. I mean, I wouldn’t want a teacher looking at my junk. I wouldn’t feel as though my privacy is protected any better if a public school (which is essentially the government) had access to my DNA. That’d actually make me feel a whole lot less protected. I’d feel violated, even.

It seems to me that this bill wasn’t properly thought through. It sounds expensive (if you’re going to ensure people are in the "right" restroom and locker room, this’ll be pricey!), and it sounds like — well, I’m no lawyer, but — it sounds to me like this invites lawsuits. I could be wrong.

But can you tell me how knowing what students’ genitals look like helps ensure their privacy? It seems to me like this bill is a solution in search of a problem; sadly, that "solution" will only cause more problems.

Best,

Parker

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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