Survey measuring Vashon teens' drug, alcohol use shows mixed picture

Far fewer eighth-graders reported using drugs or alcohol in the latest survey of Island teens, giving educators and youth advocates encouragement that efforts to curb Vashon's high substance abuse rates are beginning to have an impact.

But the Island's 10th and 12th graders, also included in the state's Healthy Youth Survey, continue to report high usage — numbers far above the statewide average for those grades.

Vashon Island School District officials, who administer the survey, said they were thrilled by the eighth-grade numbers and sobered by the 10th- and 12th-grade ones. Several Islanders, including members of Vashon's newly created Healthy Family Network, are now discussing the results, trying to make sense of the mixed picture they present.

"The fact that we did see something like this — a 10 percent across the board improvement — is wonderful," said Cathy Lambert, director of student services at the Vashon Island School District. "And it gives us some questions to ask. Something had an impact, or we had a very, very unusual cohort here. ... What did this? ... Why did we see a change in the eighth grade but nowhere else?"

Susan Hanson, principal of Vashon High School, said the results suggest to her that the Island still has a serious problem, and, at the same time, Islanders are beginning to address the issue of underage drinking and drug-use head-on.

"I think the whole community is finally starting to say not that we have bad kids but ... that this is a safety issue for our young people and we need to do something about it to reduce risk. And that pleases me," she said.

The Healthy Youth Survey, 265 questions that the Island's 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders answer, gives a snapshot into the lives of Vashon's teens. The survey, a collaborative effort by several state agencies, is undertaken by school districts across the state every two years. It attempts to garner information about a number of teen risk factors, measuring everything from how safe they feel in school to the depth of their connection to their community.

The survey, which students participate in voluntarily, was administered last fall. School officials released the results at last Thursday's school board meeting.

This year, as in years past, there's much in the survey results that gives youth advocates encouragement.

Between 85 and 97 percent of Vashon teens say they feel safe in school, numbers higher than the statewide averages. And far more Island teens than those in other districts say they feel people in their community are proud of them when they do something well.

But Vashon teens continue to report much higher drug and alcohol use than teens elsewhere, and by some measures, the situation on the Island appears to have worsened since the previous survey, taken in fall 2006.

More than 50 percent of the high school's seniors, for instance, reported using marijuana in the last 30 days, compared to around 23 percent statewide. In 2006, 37 percent of the Island's 12th-graders said they'd smoked marijuana in the past 30 days.

The numbers were high for alcohol use as well. Nearly 60 percent of Vashon's high school seniors said they'd consumed alcohol over the past 30 days, compared to 40 percent statewide. Two years ago, the numbers were a tad lower — not enough to be statistically significant.

With the 10th graders, the picture is harder to interpret, because the changes are less extreme. About 33 percent of 10th graders reported using marijuana, down from two years ago, when the number was close to 40 percent but still far above the statewide average of 19 percent.

Alcohol use among 10-graders measured in at just above 40 percent, a slight increase over two years ago and about 10 points higher than the state average.

Among eighth-graders, however, the numbers are clear-cut, district officials said.

Reported alcohol use fell considerably, from around 30 percent two years ago to 15 percent this year; that puts Vashon's eighth-graders right in line with those in the rest of the state.

As for marijuana, 10 percent of the eighth-graders reported having used over the past 30 days, compared to 14 percent in the last survey.

"The eighth-grade was a huge trend," Lambert told the school board. "It was very exciting to see these numbers."

Lambert and others said it's possible the numbers are lower among eighth-graders because of the Island's recent efforts to address what many have long considered a problem on Vashon. Over the last couple of years, school officials and youth advocates have put on panel discussions, where teens in recovery have talked about their struggles or those who have opted not to use have discussed their choices. Several Islanders have written commentaries about the issue in The Beachcomber; others have put on classes or workshops for parents who are attempting to shepherd their teens through middle and high school without using.

Stephen Bogan, a therapist who specializes in substance abuse issues and who heads the Vashon Island Prevention and Intervention Team, said much of that effort has been directed toward middle school students — sixth- to eighth-graders — and that the results may reflect that.

"They got immersed in a lot of information," he said of the middle school students. "And in the high school, it was a much harder sell."

But he said it's important to not give up on the high school students, some of whom could end up damaging their lives for years because of drug and alcohol-use.

The numbers, he added, are particularly troubling because of the way Vashon stands out from the rest of the state. He and other advocates took a look at other island communities to see if there's something about an island — its insular nature, for instance — that makes substance abuse worse.

"Some of those other islands were not as far off the state average as we were," he said.

It's no longer enough, he added, for the community to hold frank discussions with teens about why they use. Vashon adults, he said, have to step forward with strong messages about the consequences of substance abuse.

"There needs to be a line in the sand," he said. "Just having a healthy debate is not enough. There's a consequence to this use."

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