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Survey: Teenage Alcohol, Drug Use Up

Arlington middle and high school students are also happier and more involved in schools and community

A greater number of Arlington high school students are consuming alcohol and using drugs compared to three years ago, but fewer are experiencing depression, contemplating suicide or suffering from an eating disorder, a survey released last week found.

A survey of 2,300 middle and high school students conducted in March by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, concluded that Arlington teenagers are becoming more engaged in their schools and neighborhoods and feel better supported by their families than they did in 2003— the year of the last survey.

"We are seeing positive changes for young people and are encouraged by the results, but we still have some serious ongoing concerns dealing with risky behaviors," said Mary Ann Moran, the coordinator of the study.

School officials said they were most concerned with the increase in alcohol and drug use among high school students. Thirty-nine percent of high school seniors stated they had either gotten drunk in the previous two weeks or consumed alcohol three times over the past month, up from 35 percent in 2003. The rate among tenth-graders rose from 21 percent to 26 percent. A total of 52 percent of seniors wrote in the survey they had consumed alcohol in the past month, compared to 45 percent three years ago.

Janice Siegel, the director of pupil services for the school system, said the rise in alcohol consumption caught her and her staff off-guard. "This concerns me greatly because the county and schools have begun doing more aggressive substance abuse" education and training programs, Siegel said.

Since the previous study came out, the school system has been making a concerted effort to better educate students about the dangers of drinking, Siegel said. Prevention specialists now work in every middle school and the system employs two and a half substance abuse counselors to talk with high school students.

DRUG USE among high school students in Arlington rose at about the same rates as alcohol consumption did. Thirty-four percent of seniors reported using illicit drugs at least three times in the past year, compared to 28 percent three years ago. For sophomores the percentage jumped from 18 to 21 percent. The number of seniors who said they had smoked marijuana over the previous 12 months spiked from 34 percent in 2003 to 43 percent.

The prevalence of casual drug use among Arlington teenagers may surprise some parents, Moran predicted. "Many parents are not as aware or educated about drug use, and that is something we have to work on," she added.

Officials said they were thrilled to see a drop in the reported rates of depression and suicide attempts among Arlington high school students. The number of seniors who stated that they experienced depression dipped from 20 percent to 17 percent. The percentage of sophomores who said they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives decreased from 17 to 13.

In 2003 the schools community was shocked by how high the depression rate was among students and realized that outreach and prevention needed to become a higher priority, officials said. Subsequently, four mental health counselors were hired and administrators began conducting workshops for parents to help them identify the first signs of depression and other illnesses. Teachers have also received training to be able to recognize who students who might be struggling with depression.

"We have put a lot of work into trying to see a decrease in that depression number, and we have made a real difference," Siegel said.

Another successful indicator was the drop in the percentage of students who said they struggled with an eating disorder — down from 20 among tenth-graders to 16. Along similar lines, the total percentage of middle and high school students who said they had "high" self-esteem rose from 47 to 51.

TO THE DELIGHT OF SCHOOL OFFICIALS, students surveyed said they were more "engaged" in their schools than they were three years prior. Sixty-two percent of middle and high school students said they "cared about his or her school," up from 54 percent.

Ensuring that students are actively engaged in their classrooms has become a top priority of the school system and is vital to increasing student achievement, said School Board Chair Mary Hynes.

"We’ve been working on having teachers talk to kids about themselves, and trying to make sure that every kid is connected to a caring adult," Hynes added.

A greater percentage of students reported that their "family life provides high levels of love and support" — up from 65 percent to 70 percent this year.

For years Arlington school officials have contended that the more after-school activities students are involved in, the less chance they will be caught up in crime, drug abuse and other risky behaviors, Hynes said. Initiatives such as placing an activities coordinator in each middle school, helped raise the percentage of students who take part in youth programs from 61 percent to 66 percent.

"Clearly the efforts of the school system, parks and recreation [division] and myriad organizations to provide interesting, fun and enriching things to do after school have made a difference," Moran said.

However, the survey showed a slight drop in the number of students reporting that they had an adult role model in their lives, from 31 percent to 30 percent. Increasing the links between students and business and community mentors is crucial to "empowering young people," Moran added.

Other findings from the survey include:

* Fifty-six percent of high school seniors have had sex, up from 51 percent in 2003; 30 percent of sophomores had, compared to 29 percent three years ago.

* Thirteen percent of seniors had carried a weapon at some point in the past year, as had 15 percent of sophomores; in 2003, 10 and 12 percent reported having done so, respectively.

* Twenty-six percent of seniors admitted to shoplifting at least once in the past year, and 32 percent of sophomores had done so. The percentages in 2003 were 28 and 29.

* The total number of students who read for pleasure increased from 28 percent to 32 percent.

* The percentage of students who watched at least three hours of television a night dropped from 37 to 31.