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George Pyle: In Utah and Idaho, these kids are all right

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah students walked out of classes Oct. 21 in a show of solidarity to call attention for increased campus safety and protest the school's response after a student was murdered on campus last year.

As a junior high and high school student, I hated gym class and gym teachers. And if you didn’t hate them, too, then you couldn’t be my friend.

(Not that that would have been much of a loss for you. Unless you needed my help diagramming sentences.)

The whistle-toting troglodyte who commanded my PE class in, I think it was, eighth grade was particularly to be despised. All these years later I’m still kicking myself for missing what might have been my one chance to get him frog-marched out of there.

No, he didn’t do anything nasty or violent. Though I considered him capable of either. It was just that, one day, instead of the infernal laps or stupid jumping jacks, he had us all sit in the bleachers and listen to a 30-minute sales pitch about the wonders of the new golf course development that was going in at the edge of town and how we should urge our parents to be among the early buyers of ninth-hole home sites.

That just had to have been against some school board rule.

Though maybe 50 of my classmates heard the same pitch, and word of it had to have reached the principal and/or superintendent, and nothing changed. So maybe it wouldn’t have done me any good to rat him out.

Recently, we have seen several examples of students at all levels standing up, speaking out and making a difference.

At Brigham Young University students have taken their elders to task about the way the school’s honor code is enforced, resulting in new rules that give students brought up on violations advance notice of just what they stand accused of doing. Still seems far too adversarial to me, but, hey, it’s progress.

At the University of Utah, students have been speaking out in protest against the reasonable perception that the safety of students, particularly women, on campus has not been a priority. That women who have been victims of sexual or other crimes have been ignored and belittled. There have been changes in the school’s police department, a new head of campus safety is being hired and there is reason to hope that the culture is changing for the better.

At BYU-Idaho, students went public with their dissatisfaction over new rules for what would and would not count as acceptable forms of the heath insurance all students are expected to carry.

The school had said that, despite the fact that Idaho was (unlike Utah) implementing a voter-approved expansion of the federal-state Medicaid plan, being on Medicaid wouldn’t count. That the students — many of them married and either already parents or about to be — would have to buy (redundancy alert) overpriced health insurance either on the private market or through the school.

Then the school changed its mind. And apologized.

The students involved were pretty respectful in raising the issue, and didn’t gloat over their victory. But they had also been savvy enough to take their concerns to the media, making it difficult and, in the end, impossible for the powers that be to wait the students out.

There were reports that the BYU-Idaho administration successfully leaned on the editors of the campus newspaper to basically stop reporting on the issue. I used to accuse school administrators who squelch the work of campus reporters, who expect them to sit down and shut up when told to do so by authority figures, of committing blatant educational malpractice, akin to offering a math class that says 2+2 = 19.

Now I’m pretending to believe they are testing their future journalists in a kind of Starfleet Academy Kobayashi Maru exercise. A test of how they respond in difficult, or impossible, circumstances.

But the grand prize for students who were rightly as mad as heck and weren’t going to take it any more must go to three young girls — fifth graders — who tried to get their substitute teacher to stop torturing a classmate and then, when the teacher wouldn’t shut up, went and fetched the principal.

It was the story you probably read involving a sub at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, part of the Alpine School District. When an 11-year-old boy answered the question of what he was thankful for this Thanksgiving, he said it was that he was about to be officially adopted by his two dads.

The teacher went off on the poor kid about how having two dads was bad and homosexuality was a sin and on and on until the principal showed up and said, “Hey, teacher, leave that kid alone,” showed her the door and, well, I can’t imagine standing up to a teacher, even a substitute, when I was in fifth grade.

This squad of young women will be eligible to run for Congress in 2034. House Speaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be happy to welcome them.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, no longer teaches college journalism classes. He didn’t try to sell timeshares to any of his students.. gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter, @debatestate

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