'Unacceptable' number of bullying, suicide reports from Oregon students, says task force

Derek Evans, a senior at Sandy High School, describes being bullied in middle school during a news conference at Gov. Kate Brown's office in Salem.

Oregon's Task Force on School Safety says students in Oregon are filing an "unacceptable" number of reports about bullying, suicide and threats of violence.

The task force, which state lawmakers formed in 2014, announced some shocking statistics in a new report released Tuesday. Among them, it said suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 and that it's on the rise in that age group.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the overall suicide rate in Oregon rose by more than 28 percent from 1999 to 2016. That's above the national average increase of about 25 percent.

"It's a public health crisis in the state of Oregon and we need to focus on that," Dave Novotney, the task force's co-chair, told KATU.

The report says many students are dealing with a debilitating sense of sadness.

Derek Evans, a senior at Sandy High School, spoke at a news conference the task force held Tuesday at Gov. Kate Brown's office. He also talked with KATU about what the study says is the number one issue students report.

"It really just hurt everything that was going on in my life," Evans explained, as he described being severely bullied in the 8th grade.

"I had throughout middle school been picked on for being a little bit more effeminate than my counterpart males," he said. "And kind of just as a counterbalance I decided to play football because that's what all manly men do. They play football. But unfortunately that didn't stop the bullying and in fact it made it worse because then the guys on the team began to say it more frequently where it seemed like they forgot my name and just had preferred to say some sort of a homophobic slur rather than Derek."

And Evans, who told a KATU reporter he identifies as straight, said after that it only got worse.

"I missed almost a whole month of school towards the end of the school year. A) Because I was sick and B) I just, I couldn't go to school because it was so toxic for me to be there," he said.

The task force report says Evans is not alone. It says nearly one in three 8th graders and more than one in five 11th graders reported being bullied at school in 2017.

And the study says more than 30 percent of 8th graders reported feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row” that they “stopped doing some usual activities.”

"The one thing I really was missing was just student connection," Evans said. "I didn't have a set group of friends I knew I could always turn to."

The report says LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to experience bullying and harassment at school. They were twice as likely to have been threatened with a weapon and they were three times as likely to have stayed home from school because they were afraid for their safety on campus. One half of LGBTQ youth said they considered suicide during 2017, the report says, and one fourth said they actually attempted suicide.

Using data from a survey and the Safe Oregon tip line, the report also says bullying and harassment are the most common issues students report followed by substance use and the threat of suicide.

It cites another recent report from Oregon Health Authority that says the number of suicides among young people ages 10 to 24 increased by nearly 10 percent from 97 in 2014 to 107 in 2017.

"By and large, I think it's because of social media and then the dependence of social media and cell phones and all that," said Evans, who is now the Associated Student Body (ASB) vice president at Sandy High School. "When people turn to their phone for comfort just to watch Netflix, for example, the notifications can still pop down and it's a constant reminder that there's someone out there that has something bad to say about them."

The task force and Gov. Brown also promoted a new bill, the Oregon Safe to Learn Act, to hire 15 regional bullying, harassment and suicide prevention workers for two years. They said it would cost $3.87 million.

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