Trustee Charlene Metoyer is the new board president and while she is still learning the ropes of running the meetings, there are already signs of progress. She has, for example, started to ask a crucial question regarding the approval of motions, which her predecessor, Vicki Snell, often failed to do.

Snell’s tenure will not be noted for any milestones, save for an abundance of rudeness and disrespect for the members of the public who came to speak. To be fair, it should be noted that this attitude started before she became president.

Last night’s meeting marked the first of the new year for the two new Trustees, Michelle Barto and Ashley Anderson. Both wasted no time jumping in with comments and questions.

The highlight of the meeting, for me, was the announcement that suicide prevention signs would be placed throughout the appropriate schools in the immediate future. A sample sign was presented and during the public comments section, I made two recommendations for the next generation of signs.

It was a tough call. I wanted to commend the district for continuing to move forward with this program, but at the same time, I did not want to appear as a wet blanket. So, I compromised and did both.

Let me be clear about this: Student mental health and suicidal ideation are the two most important challenges facing the district. This is more important than academic performance, more important than any new facility or upgrade, and even more important than campus safety, which is a cousin to teen health.

Safety and mental health are joined at the hip: Inseparable. It has been determined that the odds of a shooter appearing on a high school or middle school campus are worse than being struck by lightning. But that is no reason to stall the implementation of safety measures.

Should a shooter appear, however, he or she is most likely to be a student and that is where the two programs intersect.

The mental health program is far more than just shooter prevention. Properly executed, it could save individual lives though, as I have written, we may never have an accurate measure of just how many lives have been saved.

Short of saving lives, a thorough mental health program can turn ambivalent kids into productive citizens.

The mental health program is particularly important during this phase of America’s fascination with technology and the broadcasting of every detail of one’s life. Kids today are at minute three or four of Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. And if you need a good example of how this works, try watching the movie, “Eighth Grade.”

Yes, “Eighth Grade” is a for-profit flick that probably has some extreme recreations of the lives of middle schoolers, but much of the portrayals are accurate: The constant attention paid to screens, the focus on “me,” the early sexualization, and the alienation of a massive chunk of the children in the U.S. and the resulting disconnect with adults.

We are being turned into silos, each of us operating on our own social media channel or channels, with a steady reduction in face-to-face social interaction. If you’ve ever been in a restaurant and seen a table of a few kids, you’re seeing the same scene played out across the country: All of them have their phones out, doing whatever it is that they do.

Is this bad or good? Is there anything we should be doing? The answers are yes and no to both. It is my opinion that this horse has left the gate. We unleashed this upon our children and we have little to no chance of ever getting kids to revert to the type of conversations and social interactions that most readers recall from their youth.

So, is this bad? Only if we continue to look at it wistfully as days gone by. I wrote last year that I do not believe in the so-called smartphone addiction. I believe that we are in the early stages of a communications evolution and the best, smartest thing we can do for kids is figure out how to use this technology to promote good health and social well-being.

What we are seeing with kids is the way it will be for everyone in a relatively short period of time in America. And if everyone is behaving that way, it’s not an addiction, it’s a transformation.

The use of technology this way has presented mental health risks that we still have not learned to counter. When one’s entire life is available for anyone to see, it makes judgment instantaneous and impossible to dismiss or delete. Who’s winning or losing, who’s dating whom, which restaurants are good or bad – all of it is up for grabs. Every scrap of a child’s life is now available for the world to see.

That creates tremendous pressure for kids. You think it was tough back in your day? You ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen what today’s teens have to face. Watch the movie.

Sorry that this rant is a bit long, but it’s fitting: Last night’s meeting was the last one before the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Patrick Turner.

Turner was in the trenches and he left detailed notes on what to do to prevent more teen suicides in Newport-Mesa. Most important was what he wrote about his decision to take his own life: “The stress put on me has led me to this point.”

I believe that in a roundabout way, Turner was trying to tell us that while signs and a comprehensive suicide prevention program are good, they are not going to solve the root problem. To do that, we – all of us, not just our schools – have to move upstream and stop stress and depression before they start, or at least recognize them earlier and treat them, student by student.

More progress

There was a presentation on the status of the air conditioning installations, which for some showed that it was too slow.  Most of us are just thrilled that the construction is continuing.

For me, the presentation itself was progress, perhaps even a breakthrough, because I saw a PowerPoint presentation from another department besides Student Services that was not a series of slides packed with text that someone just stood up and read. Nope, this one was a 10: No goofy, distracting images, no huge text blocks, just several slides with shortly worded bullets that served as talking points for the presenter

Well done.

It’s not a small point. At the heart of education is communication. If we cannot communicate effectively among ourselves, we are less likely to be effective in the classroom.

LAUSD Strike Note

While watching the local news yesterday and today, I was struck by the number of students who were interviewed and were not in class. Assuming for the moment that they had permission from a parent or guardian, their presence in the strike zones represents support for a remote education program (REP) in the event of a catastrophe.

As I wrote yesterday, there will be a catastrophe in Newport-Mesa one day, most likely a massive earthquake. The district should start to organize a task force or committee to develop a program to teach kids following such an event.

Even more progress

I didn’t call it “giggle time,” but I wish I had. “Giggle time” refers to the end of each meeting during which each board member has unlimited time to say whatever she pleases (no men on this board).

Over the years, most of it has been worthless: Recaps of the plays and ribbon-cuttings the trustee has attended. I could not care less about any of that. Maybe I’m alone there, but it seems to me that given the fact that a trustee has an opportunity twice a month to address colleagues and the board in a public meeting, we should be hearing things with a little more substance.

I did appreciate, however, that a couple of trustees pointed out some upcoming community events – not school concerts or plays – about which many or most of us would not have known. That’s good.

But what I’d really like to hear is some elevated talk about progress, vision, and next steps. What goals do you have during your terms, trustees? What’s working, what’s not? What research have you done into the best practices of other districts that may apply here?

I recently wrote that I believe the old model of trustee is on the way out. That trustee is the one who goes to study sessions, conferences, etc., but ultimately just waits for a items on the agenda that recommended by the staff and votes yes or no. Usually – almost always – yes.

The new trustee is going to get her hands dirty digging into the supporting evidence for a program. She will ask why this program, why this vendor, and why now. Most important, she will ask where it has been done before, what worked, what didn’t, and what should be changed to suit our student population.

The new trustee is also going to take advantage of the comments time to advance an agenda. Here in N-M, the trustees are now requested to speak for about three minutes.

That is real progress.

Steve Smith