Vernon student drug use survey shows declines

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Wed., Jan. 22, 2014

The Vernon Board of Education heard the results of a drug-use survey of students, at its meeting on Jan. 13. While the results are encouraging, one student had some different interpretations.

The results of the East of the River Action for Substance Abuse Elimination (ERASE) Alcohol and Drug Use Survey were presented by ERASE Executive Director Bonnie Smith and Vernon Youth and Family Services Director Alan Slobodien. Superintendent Mary Conway said the data not only helps the district target children in need of help in Vernon, but also helps with the applications for grants to fund substance abuse programs.

Slobodien said that the survey was also to gauge the effectiveness of the programs that are in place, and to assess needs that those programs may not be meeting.

Smith said that both parents and students could opt out of taking part in the survey, which took place in May and June of 2013. Participation rate was about 87 percent of the students in grades six through 12.

Core drugs – alcohol, binge drinking, cigarettes, other tobacco, marijuana and prescription drugs – were measured. The substance of choice was marijuana for high school students, with 19.1 percent having used in the last month. Alcohol was second at 15.5 percent. Among middle-schoolers, prescription drugs were highest, at 3.1 percent, and cigarettes and marijuana both at 2.5 percent.

Compared with surveys from 2000 and 2009, alcohol use was down (from 47.7 percent for high school students), as was tobacco use (from 21.8 percent down to 14.1), but marijuana and prescription drugs both had a slight uptick in usage. Marijuana usage was 21.2 percent in 2000, 18.3 percent in 2009, and 19.1 percent in 2013. Prescription drug usage was 4.3-percent in 2000, 3.7 percent in 2009 and 4.8 percent in 2013. Smith said the perceived risk of substance use was highest for cigarettes and prescriptions, and lowest for marijuana.

Smith said she was most excited to share the trend data for Vernon. “All of the substances have either reduced by a significant amount, or remained approximately the same,” she said, “which is excellent news.”

Smith said that while marijuana and prescription use is slightly higher, she is pleased that they are not significantly higher. “When you talk to people in prevention, mental health treatment, or even people in schools outside of Vernon, you hear that kids are using a lot of marijuana, given the current political environment, and using a lot of drugs not prescribed to them by a doctor. Our data are not actually reflecting that, which is really quite pleasing.”

For all substances measured, Smith said, Vernon is coming in below the state and national usage numbers. “This is wonderful news for efforts done here in Vernon,” she said.

Smith said it is great news that the overall trends are down in Vernon, and added that while she can't directly link the programs in Vernon to the use rates, the numbers are encouraging. “I can say that given the nature of how much money and effort has gone into [the programs],” she said, “I'd like to say that it's because of that emphasis.”

Olivia Whitehead – a senior at Rockville High School and a student representative on the Board of Education – said she would encourage board members to walk the halls of RHS in plain clothes, without any indication of being an authority figure. “Really get a feel for the school,” she said. “You might hear about drugs, or what happened this weekend at a crazy party. When I walk down the hall, I can point out maybe one of every four kids who is abusing one of these substances. It's not really hidden at school. I think it would give you a really good grasp of the school.”

Whitehead said students frequently smoke cigarettes and other substances in the school parking lot, and near school grounds. She also questioned the effectiveness of anti-drug messages given in health classes.

“The teacher stands in front of you and tells you, 'This is bad, this is what happens,'” she said. “I know that it really had no impact on a lot of my friends. Some of my friends started abusing these substances while we were learning about them in health class.”

Whitehead said her older sister benefited greatly from the D.A.R.E. Officer Friendly program, which she said is barely existent currently, and that providing positive role models within the schools would be effective.

“I know a lot of our kids really need this program, to set a good role model, and to know from an early age what not to do,” she said.

Board of Education Chair Anne Fischer said the Officer Friendly program, which is funded through the Police Department, is indeed set to resume in Vernon schools, beginning this May.

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