Mt. Abe students aim to curb risky behavior

BRISTOL — Local teenagers are taking risky business into their own hands, aiming to rein in teen substance abuse and other hazardous behaviors.
After the Vermont Department of Health earlier this month released the results of this year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) — a biennial look at everything from teen sex to bullying — a taskforce of Mount Abraham Union middle and high school students spent a day analyzing the Bristol school’s results.
With funding from the Vermont Department of Education, a six-student planning committee, which is part of the Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program, organized the retreat at Middlebury’s Courtyard by Marriot.
The group — consisting of 26 students in grades 8-12 — identified Mount Abe’s strengths and weaknesses surrounding risky behavior and created an action plan for dealing with issues it unearthed.
“We had the kids that were there (at the retreat) identify the most important problems to them. So I think it’s good that now we’re going to be addressing what matters to the students,” said Turner Brett, a sophomore member of the planning committee.
More than any substance, depression or sex-related issue, what bothered those in the taskforce most about the results was that 46 percent of the 433 high school students who took the survey felt their teachers don’t “really care” about them or give them “a lot of encouragement.” For the 225 middle school students who took the survey, 45 percent felt the same way.
 “That means almost half of our students think they don’t have good relations with their teachers, which is a pretty big problem,” said Brett.
The students said they felt this sentiment likely stems from issues with “advisory,” or what in some schools is called homeroom. 
“For every kid there should be at least one teacher who you can go talk to about personal things, even if it’s not in school, and I think advisory (is aimed at providing) that one teacher,” said Sawyer Kamman, a Mount Abe sophomore.
Brett pointed out that many students feel their advisors aren’t doing much advising.
“I know a lot of advisors are really unengaged with their kids. And we feel like that gets you thinking that most people just don’t care about you because that’s the number-one teacher who’s supposed to be there to care about you,” said Brett. “If they don’t (engage the student), the kid just feels like teachers aren’t making an effort to carry out their responsibility and care for you, and that can give all teachers a bad rep.”
Another factor that might influence this sentiment is grades.
“Students and teachers are both too concerned about grades,” said junior Haley Krampetz.
Kamman explained the problem doesn’t lie with teachers alone, also with some students who are not taking responsibility for their actions.
“I see it all the time. If a kid gets a D on a quiz, their first thought is, ‘The teacher graded me harshly. That’s not my fault,’” he said. “It’s not the teacher’s fault they didn’t study. The teacher graded the quiz as it is and the kid just automatically assumes they did everything right and the teacher’s wrong. So kids need to … just realize that’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s theirs.”
The students brainstormed ideas to improve student-teacher relations, like having more time together and emphasizing the advisor-advisee connection.
The students prioritized Mount Abe’s strengths and weaknesses surrounding risky behavior.
Two major weaknesses the students identified were:
•  5 percent of ninth- and 10th-graders have had sexual intercourse with four or more people.
•  The percentage of students who have ridden in a car with a driver under the influence of marijuana increases across grades, from 13 percent of freshman to 23 percent of seniors, with a spike of 28 percent of juniors.
The students feel that one of the chief reasons ninth- and 10th-graders are having sexual intercourse is because the school doesn’t spend enough time on sex education in middle school.
“We were talking about changing the eighth-grade curriculum because they take one day to talk about sexual activity and we feel that’s not enough. They need to elaborate on it more,” said junior Amanda Vincent.
To discourage students from riding with drivers under the influence of marijuana, the planning committee thought a guest speaker or a campaign with clear signage about associated risks might help.
The study also showed the school has made a lot of progress in many areas. Students identified two of the school’s strengths:
•  The number of students who have tried cigarettes has decreased steadily, from 56 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2011.
•  The percentage of students who have driven after smoking marijuana in the past 30 days has dropped steadily from 15 percent in 1999 to 9 percent this year.
To assess the risk survey, the planning committee put together a group of students from various backgrounds.
“Our goal was to have a diverse group of students attend, and I think we accomplished that really well,” said Krampetz. “We had a bunch of people from all over the high school spectrum: from different social groups and varying grades.”
The range in views strengthened the group, explained members the planning committee, who were struck by how drastically the students’ views could vary and how well the group worked together.
“I thought that it was interesting …  how some of the strengths and weaknesses seemed more important to me, but not the entire group … (Students’) priorities were different,” said Vincent. “We accomplished a lot with a very diverse group of kids.”
Moving ahead, the committee plans to engage the entire student body to consider the issues raised in the risk survey and organize a public discussion with the community about the survey’s results and the students’ findings. These preparations will begin this Tuesday, when the planning committee gets together for its weekly meeting.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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