Loudoun has a new tool to help keep youths from getting involved with drugs, violence and gangs.
The newly released youth survey provides data that could be used to more effectively support prevention efforts, officials say. The “Communities That Care” Youth Survey was conducted in April and May 2004. It was administered to 1,573 8th, 10th and 12th graders; 39 surveys were thrown out, because it appeared the students were falsifying the answers. A similar survey was conducted three years ago.
The data showed fewer students are smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and alcohol use is still prevalent.
Doug Holmes, assistant superintendent of pupil services, said he was pleased with the decline of tobacco use. The overall average for students smoking cigarettes in the past 30 days was 13 percent compared to 22 percent in 2001, he said. The number of Loudoun’s 8th and 10th graders using cigarettes was lower than national figures, but the 12th graders’ cigarette use was higher.
The number of students who have smoked cigarettes at least once in their lives averaged 35.1 percent, with 19.4 percent of the 8th graders, 37 percent of the 10th graders and 55 percent of the 12th graders, reporting use.
THE OVERALL AVERAGE for students smoking marijuana in the past 30 days was 13.2 percent compared to 20 percent in 2001. Marijuana use was lower than the national average among 8th and 10th graders, and use among 12th graders was higher.
The number who smoked marijuana at least once in their lives averaged 26 percent, with 10 percent of the 8th graders, 30 percent of the 10th graders and 46 percent of 12th graders reporting use.
The survey found the overall average of students who drank alcoholic beverages in the past 30 days was 31.9 percent. Compared to national findings, a lower number of 8th and 10th graders reported drinking in the past 30 days but the 12th graders rated higher.
The number of students who had drunk at least once in their lives was 46.6 percent of the 8th graders, 64 percent of the 10th graders and of the 77.4 percent of the 12th graders.
Cigarette use was only about half as prevalent as alcohol use.
Results of a similar youth survey of Fairfax County students showed comparable levels of cigarette and drug use. But a higher number of Loudoun’s 12th graders have reported drinking in the past 30 days and having participated in binge drinking compared to Fairfax 12th graders. In Loudoun, 51.5 percent of the students had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days compared to 45.8 percent of the Fairfax seniors. Regarding binge drinking, 32.5 percent of Loudoun’s 12th graders had reported at least one episode of binge drinking compared to 27.6 percent of Fairfax’s 12th graders.
THE SURVEY LOOKED at protective factors, such as strong bonding to family, school, community and peers, which are known to decrease the likelihood of a student engaging in risky behavior. The data also focused on risk factors that increase the likelihood of students being involved in drugs, delinquency, school dropout and violence.
Holmes said the survey provided clues on how Loudoun can help students to make better decisions about their behavior. The data indicated, for example, that teenagers do not believe they are being recognized and rewarded often enough for good behavior. “We need to work with the schools and community to engage these kids in pro social activities and … provide more recognition for that.”
He described the “pro social activities” as those that that are not supportive of alcohol, other drugs and violence.
Holmes said the survey showed another way to combat risky behavior was to make sure students actually believe the community objects to drug use and antisocial behavior. The report looked at eight behaviors, including attacking someone with intent to harm and being drunk or high at school. “We want to make sure the students believe the community is anti-use and won’t condone that type of conduct,” he said.
The survey demonstrated that students need a better sense of community — a connection to their neighborhoods. Holmes said this was not surprising considering that Loudoun is the fastest growing county in the nation.
THE NUMBERS ALSO revealed that the older the students get, the more likely they are to participate in negative behavior. “This is the parent education piece,” he said. “With regard to parents, we want to make them aware of the risks. As the kids get older, the supervision issues still need attending to. Make sure they know where their kids are and how easy it is to get drugs. … Make sure they are going to alcohol and drug free events.”
Carol Kost, chairwoman of the Loudoun County’s Youth Advisory Commission, said the report found that the prevention efforts in tobacco use have been effective, but alcohol use among teenagers is still a problem. She said the results could be attributed to the tobacco settlement money used for anti-smoking programs.
“In my mind, maybe we need to do something like that around alcohol,” she said.
Kost said she plans to combine the survey data and information gleaned from recent focus groups to develop recommendations and an action plan to reduce risky behavior among youth. The Youth Advisory Task Force is nearly finished interviewing middle and high school youths to gauge their needs. A Youth Symposium has been slated from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Nov. 10 in Lansdowne to put together an action plan based on all of the data.
Kurt Erickson, vice-chairman of the commission and president of Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said he would like to see more alcohol prevention efforts involving students and parents. “The Greater Washington Area, of which Loudoun County is part of, actually has seen an up-tick in local teen drunk driving deaths,” he said.
Between 2001 and 2002, the period for which the latest statistics are available, fatalities rose from 14 to 21. “Drunk driving is a major issue, but youth who have access to alcohol are involved in other risks,” such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease, he said.
Erickson said parents need to serve as role models, only drinking moderately, and never drinking and driving. “We need to get over the parents and students thinking this is a rite of passage or ‘I’ll just have a party at my house,’” he said. “I can name millions of studies that say parents have a significant impact on whether teens engage in risky behavior.”