Group of teenagers making different activities sitting in an urban area

Kids need to be back in school. Once that’s stable, the new challenge will be making up for any learning lost.

But the old challenges have not gone away.

Deschutes County has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the state. The county rate is 18.9 suicides per 100,000. Suicide is preventable. About 90% of people with suicidal intent that receive intervention do not die by suicide.

Use of e-cigarettes is spiking in Oregon. And substance abuse in Deschutes County youth trends higher than in other parts of the state. About 29% of county 11th graders reported e-cigarette use in a 2018 survey. Binge drinking and marijuana use among 11th graders were both at about 20%.

Teens and young adults also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections across the country. In Deschutes County about 30% of the chlamydia cases have been in people 19 and younger. And there were 25 teen pregnancies among 10-17 year-olds in the county in 2019.

Those factors can sabotage a student’s ability to learn. They can derail the ability of students to get jobs. They can damage students physically and mentally.

Teachers can teach. They have less expertise with these other issues.

Almost a year ago Bend-La Pine Schools went to the county for help. They proposed a novel partnership with the professionals at Deschutes County Public Health. The county would embed health educators in schools to work with students on health promotion and prevention. It was going to be a three-year pilot.

If ever there was an issue that deserved a thorough policy debate, it was this. It didn’t get it last year. Commissioners had questions. Nobody from the district was there to answer. The school district’s own budget meetings conflicted with one county meeting. District officials were not notified that it was going to be discussed at another county meeting. No surprise, the county didn’t fund it. It was a failure that such an important issue got scant attention. Commissioner Phil Chang, elected in November, made that part of his election campaign.

This year, on Tuesday, the Youth Success Partnership got the debate it deserved. School board member Melissa Dholakia was joined by other school district staff at the county. Leaders of the county’s health services department explained the program. The cost would be about $323,000 in the first year and $770,000 by the third year. That’s primarily personnel with 5.8 FTE at the end of the third year. The county and the district would split the cost, 50/50.

Yes, it’s a lot of money for an unproven program. But there are social costs and financial costs that it might offset. Outpatient substance abuse treatment can cost $8,000. A teen pregnancy can cost double that. And those are just immediate costs. The plan is the program’s performance would be measured to attempt to demonstrate if the investment works.

Another consideration is fairness. If such a program works, Sisters and Redmond school districts deserve to be able to participate. That would mean even more county money.

And a third issue is the other competing needs for county dollars. The Youth Success Partnership is just one of many worthy, additional requests for money in the county budget. It was actually put behind others in priority in the proposed budget. It’s behind things such as a new perinatal care position (net cost about $89,000), converting a substance abuse prevention position to full-time (net cost about $32,000) and more than six new positions in the county’s behavioral health and adult services programs (net cost about $480,000).

Of course it would be nice to do all of them. Commissioner Chang told us commissioners won’t likely decide until Friday when they weigh all the requests and the money available. Should services that will help more adults come first? Should kids come first? Is that even the right way to weigh the options? At least this year, the county and the school district ensured the Youth Success Partnership got a fighting chance.

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