Teens use more drugs, alcohol, survey says

A survey of hundreds of Island students shows that many of them consider alcohol and marijuana relatively easy to obtain on Vashon and believe that “community laws and norms favor drug use,” according to a preliminary report on the survey results.

The Healthy Youth Survey also shows that alcohol and marijuana use is higher among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders on Vashon than levels of use statewide. Tobacco use, meanwhile, is consistent with the state average.

“The thing the community needs to hear loud and clear is that our young people are telling us that our community is tolerant of underage drinking and drug use,” said Susan Hanson, principal at Vashon High School. “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Perceptions matter.”

The trend, which has been established in previous surveys, concerns Hanson.

“I think we have children in danger,” she said.

The survey results, which will be shared with the Vashon Island School Board Thursday night, come at the same time that educators and service providers are working more closely than ever to address underage substance abuse and to raise awareness about the impact such use can have on teens and their still-developing brains.

Several efforts are underway, including an evening course for parents of middle schoolers, a PTSA-sponsored Parent Awareness Forum next month and a much broader effort to resurrect a Healthy Community Network on Vashon. The network, supported by a grant from the state, is a grassroots effort to unearth data about a range of social and health issues and facilitate a community-wide conversation about the kinds of programs and interventions the Island needs.

“The thing that’s really encouraging to me right now is that there’s a lot happening, and we’re all talking to one another,” said Claudia Gross Shader, who’s working with others to create the Healthy Community Network on the Island. “There seems to be more synergy than ever before.”

Hanson agreed, noting that the latest round of concern — unlike efforts in the past — was not triggered by the death of a teenager.

“I think it’s a wonderful trend, and I hope it continues and increases,” she said.

The Healthy Youth Survey, sponsored by the state and conducted by most school districts in Washington every two years, attempts to measure young people’s behaviors and attitudes in several arenas, from seat belt use to how many servings of fruit and vegetables they eat each day. The wide-ranging results give districts a statistically strong snapshot of their students, information districts can use to shape curriculum or develop additional programs.

On Vashon, 70 to 80 percent of the students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade took the lengthy survey, Hanson and McMurray Middle School principal Greg Allison reported. It was conducted in 2006.

Because of Vashon’s smaller-than-average student body size, the district, working with the Island’s new Healthy Community Network and Vashon Youth & Family Services, decided to hire a graduate student at the University of Washington to thoroughly analyze and make statistical sense of the numbers. A 25-page Powerpoint that the graduate student prepared will be presented to both the school board and the Vashon Island Prevention and Intervention Team (VIPIT) on Thursday. VIPIT is comprised of school counselors, school officials, therapists who work with youth, social workers and others concerned with the health of Vashon’s youth.

The Powerpoint, a preliminary analysis of the survey’s lengthy results, highlights some of the key findings of the survey, including drug and alcohol use and the risk factors that contribute to higher rates of use.

Among some of its conclusions are:

• Alcohol and marijuana use is higher than state levels for eighth- and 12th-graders; marijuana use is higher for 10th-graders. During a 30-day period, for instance, nearly 60 percent of Vashon’s 12th-graders reported alcohol use, compared to 41 percent statewide; and 38 percent reported marijuana use, compared to 21 percent statewide. Use of all other drugs (including methamphetamine and cocaine) is consistent with the state average.

• A greater percentage of Vashon students think community laws and norms favor drug use than state levels.

• The percentage of students who think that alcohol is easy to get on Vashon is much higher than state levels. For instance, 61 percent of the Island’s eighth-graders think alcohol is easy to get, compared to 33 percent of eighth-graders who believe that statewide.

• The percentage of 10th-graders who believe they’ll be caught by police if they drink is “significantly lower” than state levels. And a significantly higher percentage of 12th-graders report “favorable attitudes towards drug, friends’ use of drugs and intentions to use as adults” than those who reported such attitudes statewide.

But some of the conclusions in the Powerpoint report are positive.

Bullying, for instance, has significantly decreased since 2004, according to eighth-graders, and more 10th- and 12th-graders reported feeling safe at school than those statewide. A significantly higher percentage of 10th-graders never fight or carry a weapon, according to the report.

Vashon also has very low reports of teen births, and significantly fewer 10th- and 12th-graders reported that they felt depressed.

The findings ring true to people who work with the Island’s young people and their parents.

Stephen Bogan, a nationally certified addiction counselor who has a private practice on Vashon, recently started a group for young people struggling with addictions.

“What I hear from youth who are returning from treatment is that there’s no safe place to be … to get away from the drug influences at the school,” he said.

Teens tell him that drugs and alcohol are easy to obtain on Vashon and that as long as they don’t get into trouble because of their use, adults don’t intervene.

“Unless you get into a car crash or into big trouble, drug use is OK,” he said.

“It’s epidemic here,” added Yvonne Zick, who leads a class called Guiding Good Choices for parents of middle schoolers. “We have it at the middle school.”

Bogan, Zick and others say there are many factors that lead to higher levels of use on Vashon. It stems in part from the Island’s rural nature and few police officers; from the fact that working parents, due to commuting, are often gone for 12 hours a day, leaving kids to their own devices; and from the Island’s liberal “live and let live” attitude, as Bogan put it.

But the biggest issue, they said, is that too many parents are not intervening or setting clear boundaries and clear expectations, professionals said.

“I know some parents who are more upset by tobacco use than marijuana use,” Bogan said.

A parent, he added, wouldn’t tell his or her child that it’s OK to shoplift as long as the shoplifting doesn’t lead to trouble. But that’s essentially the message some parents give, he said.

“It’s really terrible logic,” he added.

But many are encouraged by the community’s mounting response to teen drug and alcohol use, an organized effort that began a few years ago — after the last Healthy Youth Survey — and that is now beginning to bear fruit, they said.

Sam Collins, executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services, said that what the Healthy Community Network and other efforts are really aimed at is “changing community norms.”

“In the end, it’s about how the community responds,” he said. “And we’re very fortunate, in that we have a very well-defined community. If we can do this on behalf of our young people, we’ll have the best place in America to raise our kids.”

Zick said she, too, is impressed by what she sees on the Island — a strong and growing conviction that adults working together can begin to alter the landscape of teen life on Vashon.

“I’m thrilled. I feel the whole community is coming together in all these different ways,” she said.

But some of the attitudes she and others are working to change are deeply ingrained, she added.

“It’s going to take some time,” she said.