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Vashon’s teen drinking levels still above state average

Vashon high schoolers continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana at rates higher than their peers in the rest of the state, but middle-school use is down, according to a recent survey, giving hope to those working to address Vashon’s high levels of youth substance abuse.

“That’s where I see we’re making headway,” said Luke McQuillin, the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse’s (VARSA) project coordinator. “That’s the piece that really excites me.”

Results from the latest Healthy Youth Survey (HYS), administered to sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders last fall, show a mixed picture, according to those involved in a far-reaching effort to get Vashon youth to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

On one hand, high school drinking rates remain well above the state average. Last fall, 65 percent of Vashon 12th-graders reported they had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days, compared with just 36 percent of 12th-graders statewide. In the 10th grade, 36 percent of those surveyed reported drinking in the past 30 days, compared with 23 percent statewide.

Both grade levels also reported drinking at rates slightly higher than 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed two years ago, and binge drinking rates on the island, measured for the first time this year, surpassed state averages. Marijuana use among high schoolers is also slightly above the state average, but is down compared to past years.

At the same time, survey results show a significant downturn in drinking among middle schoolers. In 2006, 31 percent of eighth graders reported having at least one drink in the past 30 days. In 2008 and 2010, that number hovered around 15 percent, and last year it dropped to just 5 percent, below the state average of 12 percent. Eighth graders’ binge drinking levels were also slightly lower than the state average, with just 5 percent reporting that they’d consumed five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks.

McQuillin said VARSA members hope the dramatic results in the eighth grade mean that their efforts to reach out to children and their families and to change community attitudes around drinking and drug use are beginning to take hold. Eighth graders’ marijuana use was also down compared with two years ago and is now in line with the state average.

“There’s a greater chance for us to have some influence over their behavior, by starting earlier,” McQuillin said.

As VARSA works to interpret the results of the extensive survey, the coalition, which includes volunteers from several areas of the community and operates with Vashon Youth & Family Services as a fiscal sponsor, is also grappling with its own internal issues.

Last month, an ongoing dispute apparently came to a head when VYFS director Kathleen Johnson asked several VARSA coalition members to resign from their positions, with an invitation to reapply if they wished.

In Johnson’s letter to member Larry Kjellberg, which was attached to a reply email Kjellberg sent to Johnson and copied to a reporter at The Beachcomber as well as a long list of others, Johnson gave a few reasons for making the move, including VARSA’s failure to report in a timely manner various data required by its government grants.

“Due to the ongoing leadership dispute among current leadership, we have been unable to do this,” she wrote.

Johnson also cited “Poor HYS results” as a concern.

“While we have some promising progress among 8th graders, we are clearly failing with 10th and 12th graders,” she wrote.

In emails to Johnson, copied to The Beachcomber and others, three coalition members expressed dismay at Johnson’s decision and said they would not resign.

Meri-Michael Collins and Diane Kjellberg, VARSA co-chairs, both wrote that they hoped the group could work together to find a resolution.

Larry Kjellberg, in his email, was highly critical of Johnson and her work at VYFS and questioned whether she had the authority to “take this action against a legally establish and elected board.”

In an interview late last month, VARSA member Jim Hauser said the organization had experienced “disagreements within the board and disagreements between some members of the board and staff that weren’t resolving themselves.”

Hauser, who, according to Johnson’s letter did agree to resign and then rejoin the coalition, said the group was scheduled to have mediation.

“My personal opinion is internal disputes about who’s in charge and how to run things are distracting us from our mission,” Hauser said.

“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” he added. “I think we all recognize there’s a problem and there’s probably a number of good ways to solve it.”

Since then, however, several board members, Johnson and McQuillin have all declined to comment on the dispute or the mediation.

On Monday, Collins issued a statement she said the coalition approved that suggested VARSA and VYFS were working together.

“We are grateful for the assistance that we have received from the VYFS board and for their support in assuring our autonomy,” the statement said. “We appreciate the hard working VYFS and VARSA staff for their continued support in our efforts. Because of their long experience on Vashon, respect in the community, and collaboration with these grants and programs, VYFS has acted as VARSA’s Fiscal Agent and we look forward to a long and successful partnership.”

VARSA members will say they are currently pushing forward with their work in the community, deciding how to best spend government funding funneled to Vashon to help address the island’s above-average youth substance abuse rates. The group is finishing the fourth year of a 10-year federal Drug Free Communities grant that if renewed has the potential to provide $1.25 million in funding for prevention activities over the decade. A year ago, the group got a boost when VYFS secured another grant that will provide $150,000 a year for five years for prevention work.

McQuillin said the latest grant is especially significant because, unlike the Drug Free Communities one, it can be spent on school and community programs such as classes, campaigns, parent education, interventions and training. The other grant focuses on changing community attitudes and norms, he said, funding projects to address Vashon’s so-called hot spots for drug and alcohol use and to train store employees around alcohol sales.

“What that (new grant) did is made Vashon a completely one-stop shop, if you will, for prevention-type activities,” McQuillin said.

Both McQuillin and Lori Means, a parent educator at Vashon Youth & Family Services and another VARSA project coordinator, say it makes sense that VARSA would see positive results in younger grades before high schoolers. For years, VYFS has been gradually growing its prevention program, which has so far reached younger children more than high schoolers. And in the survey, eighth graders also reported more positively than classes before them on some factors that put youth at risk of using, a possible sign at VARSA efforts are working,

“If you start early, you have time to develop all these things you call protective factors like relationships, pro-social activities and clear family values, clear limit setting,” Means said.

VARSA is now beginning to focus on a new set of curriculum for Vashon schools that uses positive messaging, proven in studies to affect youth more than negative messaging, McQuillin said. It will also work to reach out to parents more, as a higher-than-average number of Vashon teens still report their parents aren’t disapproving of alcohol and drug use, according to Healthy Youth Survey results. Unlike many other communities, Vashon has not seen low graduation rates and low student involvement that normally accompanies high substance use rates.

“All (the results do) is reinforce our efforts toward parent education,” Means said.

Collins, a VARSA chair, said tackling youth substance abuse isn’t easy, and especially not on Vashon, a place where people are often more influenced by friends than by large campaigns. To that end, one of VARSA’s goals is to simply grow its network of supporters in the coming years.

“You’re not going to get anything done if it’s top down, especially on Vashon,” she said. “We’re going to have to come at it from a lot of different angles, and I think that’s what’s starting to happen at VARSA.”

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