Survey examines sex, drug and health risks to local teens

ADDISON COUNTY — How many local teenagers drink and drive? How many Addison County high school students have had sex? Of that number, what percentage used a condom? Do middle school students really consider suicide?
These are just some of the questions that a statewide risk survey has sought to answer for more than a decade.
At the beginning of 2011, more than 1,800 Addison County middle and high school students — along with others from across the state — took the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Vermont Department of Health. After researchers ran more than “100 consistency checks on data to exclude careless, invalid, or logically inconsistent answers,” it returned the results earlier this month. The 1,271-student high school (grades 9-12) survey and the 679-student middle school (grades 6-8) survey drew from pupils at Middlebury Union Middle and High Schools, Mount Abraham Union Middle and High School, Vergennes Union High School, Orwell Village School and the Hannaford Career Center.
The results of the survey show a decrease in substance abuse since 1999, an increase in sexual intercourse, a reduction in condom use, and an increase in bullying. It also showed that almost one in five middle school students have considered killing themselves.
The survey is intended to show what risky behaviors students engage in, not why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s meant to increase awareness about these behaviors, stimulate a community-based conversation and encourage schools and communities to create strategies for dealing with these issues that put their youth at risk.
Officials in Addison County’s three public middle and high schools will work with a selected group of students over the next several months to address the issues raised by this risk survey.
“I think the way (this survey) is most helpful is getting the students engaged in the community and looking at what would improve the school,” said Sharon Koller, student assistance program counselor at Mount Abe.
Local drug prevention specialists gather once a month. At a Thursday meeting of the Addison County Prevention Partnership at the New Haven State Police barracks the overwhelming sentiment expressed was that drug prevention tactics seem to be working.
They noted that the 2011 survey shows that substance use is down, for the most part.
According to the high school results:
•  32 percent of students consumed at least one drink in the past 30 days, down from 47 percent in 1999 and 36 percent in 2009. Forty-seven percent of the high school students who drank were seniors and 46 percent of the alcohol consumed across all grades was liquor.
•  17 percent of students have engaged in binge drinking — had five or more drinks in a row — in the past 30 days, down from 30 percent in 1999, 24 percent in 2007, and 21 percent in 2009.
•  22 percent of students used marijuana in the past 30 days, down from 31 percent in 1999, up from 21 percent in 2007 and down from 24 percent in 2009. Freshman marijuana use rose to 14 percent, up from 11 percent in 2007 and 12 percent in 2009.
Cigarette use and other drug activity took a downturn. Statistics show:
•  13 percent of students smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, a decline from 31 percent in 1999, 15 percent in 2007 and 19 percent in 2009. Of those students who smoke, 48 percent have tried to quit.
•  2 percent of students have used cocaine in the past 30 days, down from 4 percent in 2007 and 3 percent in 2009.
•      Methamphetamine use has dropped from 10 percent in 1999 to 3 percent this year.
•  Hallucinogen use has also plummeted from 21 percent in 1999 to 9 percent today.
•  Inhalant use is down from 15 percent in 1999 and 8 percent in 2009 to 7 percent today.
The survey also looked at external factors of drug use, finding 14 percent of students were offered, sold or given illegal drugs on school property, a decrease from 31 percent in 1999 and 18 percent in 2009.
As for mixing substances and driving, 19 percent of students have ridden in a vehicle with a driver who has been drinking. This number is down from 27 percent in 1999 and 21 percent in 2009. Students who drank and drive in the past 30 days account for 5 percent participating teens, down from 9 percent in 1999 and 7 percent in 2009.
The number of high school students driving under the influence of marijuana has decreased from 14 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2011. Some 20 percent of seniors said they have driven under the influence of marijuana, which is much higher than other grades whose students likely aren’t old enough to drive.
The survey also looks at how youngsters view the health risks of certain substances. The results show that 34 percent of students think marijuana use presents a high risk to their health. This perception greatly varies among high-schoolers. While 50 percent of freshmen believe marijuana presents a serious health risk, only 25 percent of seniors share this view. Considering the 2009 survey, today’s seniors and juniors once felt marijuana presented a greater risk to their health when they were freshmen and sophomores.
One statistic that surprised the Addison County Prevention Partnership is that only 58 percent of students think smoking one or more packs of cigarettes a day can harm their health.
Meanwhile, teen sex seems like it’s on the rise and condom use looks like its on the decline. Findings show:
•  39 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, up from 36 percent in 1999, 34 percent in 2005 and on par with the 2009 statistic.
•  30 percent of students have had intercourse in the past three months, up from 27 percent in 1999, 25 percent in 2005 and 29 percent in 2007.
•  Only 60 percent of students used condoms the last time they had intercourse, down from 65 percent in 1999, 73 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2009.
•  41 percent of students have had oral sex, and 17 percent of students have used drugs or alcohol before intercourse.
Not all students, however, are sexually active: 42 percent of females said they’ve never had sexual contact, compared with 46 percent of males.
Perspectives on body weight also seem to be an issue, with 41 percent of students trying to lose weight — a fairly level statistic over the past decade — and 18 percent skipping a meal in the past 30 days for weight-related reasons.
At the prevention partnership meeting, Nate Kittredge, prevention coordinator in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, expressed concern about students not getting enough physical education. Only 37 percent of high school students attend P.E. classes at least once a week.
“Being physically active is important and a lot of high school students do have a lot of trouble being so sedentary during the school day. It is too bad we don’t provide more opportunities for them to be active,” said Mount Abe’s Koller, explaining that it’s difficult for schools to increase physical activity in the school day due to countless government-mandated requirements and tests.
In addition to body weight-related issues, Koller said bullying is still a problem. Students feeling bullied in the past 30 days accounted for 16 percent of those surveyed, up from 15 percent in 2007 and 14 percent in 2009. Middle-schoolers in particular report feeling bullied:
•  47 percent of middle school students reported being bullied on school property — 30 percent in the past 30 days.
•  7 percent of students didn’t go to school in the past 30 days because they felt unsafe.
Even more disheartening is that 18 percent of middle school students in the county have considered killing themselves, 9 percent have made a suicide plan and 3 percent have attempted suicide. 
Thanks to a state grant, a group of Mount Abe students will meet at Middlebury’s Courtyard by Marriot this Wednesday to discuss the survey, identify the school’s problems and successes, and craft a response plan. They’ll then present their findings and course of action to the community. After a team of Mount Abe students found in the 2009 survey that many of their peers felt underappreciated, the team created a monthly “Teen Log” to tout their peers’ accomplishments in the Independent.
Middlebury and Vergennes students will also hold similar workshops in the upcoming months.
“We’ll evaluate what’s working and where we need to put energy and attention,” said Koller.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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