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Survey: alcohol, marijuana use up 5 percent by high school students


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Experimentation with cigarettes and marijuana by middle school students is declining while regular marijuana and alcohol use by high school students is up about 5 percent in Westford, according to a recent survey sponsored by Emerson Hospital.

"The state of Westford is in good shape," District Health Coordinator John Lyons told the School Committee Monday. "On the whole, students are making good decisions, but some areas need some work."

Experimental tobacco use among eighth graders dropped from 28 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2004, while regular cigarette use dropped from 9 percent to 4 percent in the same years, according the 2004 Youth Risk Behavior Survey given to students in Grades 6 through 12 in March of last year.

Almost 2,000 Westford students answered questions in 11 areas from sleeping patterns and dietary behavior to sexual behavior and illegal drug use in the anonymous and voluntary survey.

More than 7,000 students participated in the regional survey that included Acton, Boxborough, Acton-Boxborough, Concord, Concord-Carlisle, Groton-Dunstable, Littleton, Maynard and Westford school systems.

Westford continues to do better than the aggregate results of the regional survey and the state as a whole on many risky behaviors, however, Lyons identified some areas that he said the community needs to address.

Alcohol use among high school students increased about 5 percent since 2002. More than 40 percent of high school students said they drank at least once within the last 30 days, while 25 percent admitted to binge drinking - having five or more drinks within a couple of hours. Both statistics are within 1 or 2 percent of the aggregate.

"Alcohol is the number one drug of choice both in Westford and in the Commonwealth," said Lyons. "It is readily available and cheap."

Almost 19 percent of all high school students surveyed said they had ridden in a car with a minor who had been drinking alcohol or using another drug at least once in the past 30 days, while high school students who drove after drinking at least once in the past month increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 9 percent in 2004.

Lyons was also concerned about the number of students who attend parties at private homes in the district where minors are allowed to drink and said there is a need for parent education.

One out of every nine eighth grade students and 30 percent of high school students reported having attended such parties either occasionally or frequently during the 12 months prior to the survey.

Experimentation with illegal drugs increased slightly from 2002.

More than 30 percent of high school students admitted to having tried marijuana in their lifetime, while 6 percent said they tried cocaine, 4 percent tried ecstasy and 4 percent tried methamphetamines. More than 10 percent of sophomores and juniors and 14 percent of seniors said they had used someone else's prescription medications in the past 12 months.

Lyons identified the use of inhalants like glue or spray cans as one of the next big troubling trends. Five percent of sixth graders said they had used inhalants to get high - a jump from 2 percent in 2002.

The number of high school students who were sold or given drugs on school property (14 percent) was 8 percent below the aggregate and 19 percent below the state average.

Although the 2004 results were within 1 or 2 percent of the 2002 results, Lyons was concerned about some of the mental health issues revealed by the survey results. Twelve percent of eighth-grade students and 13 percent of high school students said they had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, while 4 percent of both groups said they actually attempted it on at least one occasion in the same time frame.

A committee member pointed out that 4 percent is almost 50 students at Westford Academy.

Lyons said it is important to note that the reasons for contemplating suicide for adults are different those of sixth- or eighth-graders who might be worried about things like failing an exam.

"In the mind of a sixth- or eighth-grader, that might be enough," he said.

Fifteen percent of eighth-grade students and 16 percent of all high school respondents - the same as the aggregate - reported having hurt themselves on purpose by cutting, burning or bruising themselves in the last 12 months.

"When we see this particular behavior, this is a cry for help," said Lyons.

Committee member Don Siriani said he was dismayed at the numbers and asked if they warranted an expansion of the survey in the area of self-inflicted injuries and suicide, while committee member Dan Haskard asked if a question on the source of mental anxiety - be it personal, financial, educational - could be added to the survey.

Lyons, who is involved in the development of the 2006 YRBS survey, said he would bring those issues to the table for discussion.

Gambling is one area where Westford scored above the aggregate.

More than 26 percent of sixth-grade students, 47 percent of eight grade students and 44 percent of all high school students indicated that they had gambled by betting on lottery, Keno, sporting events, casino games, cards or racing at least once during the past 12 months, while 12 percent of sixth graders, 26.5 percent of eighth graders and 32 percent of high school students reported having gambled during the month prior to the survey.

"On ESPN there is nothing but poker and gambling shows," said Lyons. "It becomes a sport."

Lyons told committee members that a community forum to increase awareness on the issues is being planned. He said multiple strategies must be developed for prevention of risky behavior.

"It cannot ever be just one avenue for a solution," said Lyons. "All the players, all the community members have to be at the table."

The "topic timing" of health curriculum will also be reviewed to ensure that the right health topics are being taught at the right times.

"We may not be able to solve them all, but we're going to work hard to reduce the number of students involved in risky behavior, said Lyons.

The School Department will also continue to work with the Board of Health and Westford Against Substance Abuse, as well as the Police Department on criminal activity like drunk driving and illegal drug use.

"We certainly can't do it alone," said Lyons. "We have students six hours a day."

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