Study shows substance abuse down overall among Valley youth

SNOQUALMIE - While there are some alarming trends regarding drug use among teenagers in the area, a report presented on May 3 showed a decrease of harmful health behaviors in the Valley's youth.

The report was culminated from anonymous questionnaires sent out to sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders throughout Washington and the Snoqualmie Valley School District was one of the participating districts. The data was presented at the Healthy Youth Forum put on by the Snoqualmie Valley Community Network on May 3.

"Overall, the results are promising, but we must continue to invest in prevention strategies that have been proven to work. In our communities, everyone has a part to play to guide the positive development of young people," said Kevin Haggerty, a researcher with the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group who presented the data for the forum.

Despite declines, drug use continues to be a problem among students, Haggerty said, and use seems to accelerate in the first two years of high school. The report showed a precipitous jump in drug use between eighth and 10th grades. Only 4 percent of district eighth graders reported smoking a cigarette in the past 30 days, but that number jumped to 17 percent by 10th grade. Marijuana use was even higher, with 4 percent of district eighth graders reporting use in the past 30 days and 21 percent of 10th graders saying they had used in the past 30 days.

While the percentage of students reporting drug use in 12th grade was similar to 10th grade, Haggerty said that number can be misleading. Since some students who use drugs in 10th grade will drop out of school by the time they are seniors, the similar number does not necessarily mean the number of youth using has actually stayed the same.

The most common drug of choice continues to be alcohol. Ten percent of eighth graders reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, a number that increases to 34 percent for 10th graders and 41 percent for 12th graders.

Binge drinking is especially troubling, Haggerty said. In the district, 5 percent of eighth graders responding had five or more drinks in a row sometime in the last two weeks. Tenth graders came in at 24 percent and 12th graders at 27 percent. The finding is particularly troubling, Haggerty said, since studies have shown that while 90 percent of the human brain is developed by age 6, it continues to develop until the age of 24.

"No wonder some [children] come in Monday and can't focus if they have been on a bender," he said.

Alcohol is the most prevalent drug among youth, but marijuana is becoming more common and is considered a gateway drug to harder substances. Haggerty said that 60 percent of children who use marijuana before age 15 will go on to use cocaine. In fact, Haggerty said more teenagers reported using marijuana in the last 30 days than using cigarettes. One of the reasons may be that students said marijuana is easier to get than alcohol or cigarettes.

Haggerty said one of the most alarming aspects of the report was the percentage of students in the district who have contemplated suicide, which was higher than the state average in some grades. The percentage of eighth graders that contemplated suicide in the past year in the district was lower than the state percentage; 13 percent compared to 14. In 10th grade, however, that percentage of district students was more than 20 percent while the state was at 17 percent. In the 12th grade, the number was the same at 14 percent. The percentage of eighth graders and 12th graders in the state and district that attempted suicide during the last year was less than 10 percent, but 17 percent of the district's 10th graders reported attempting suicide. The state percentage for attempted suicide among 10th graders was also less than 10 percent.

Overall, however, Haggerty said there have been some gains. He noted that district schools' zero tolerance policy regarding drugs among its students has curbed use, especially among athletes, and praised the athletic department at Mount Si High School for keeping the policy firm when children have been caught using.

Although marijuana is easier to get, the report showed that fewer students are using it now than in the past. Less than 25 percent of 10th and 12th graders have used in the past 30 days, and less than five percent of eighth graders reported using it. In 1995, more than 15 percent of eighth graders reported marijuana use, as did 24 percent of 10th graders and 20 percent of 12th graders.

Also, a vast majority of students are staying away from hard drugs like methamphetamine, steroids, cocaine and injected drugs, with less than 10 percent of students from all grades saying they have used these substances in the past 30 days.

Haggerty said there are still some questions left that need more research. He said he has seen a spike in the number of students who abuse prescription drugs and advised parents to keep their children away from narcotic pain killers like Vicodin when getting a prescription to help with pain.

While schools have made gains fighting drug use among students, Haggerty stressed that the most important work is done at home. Despite what many parents believe to be their insignificant role in their children's lives, students report that their parents remain the primary influence in what decisions they make.

"The No. 1 reason for [children] not doing drugs is disappointing their parents," said Phoebe Terhaar, a prevention specialist with Friends of Youth.

To bring the point home, Mount Si students at the forum acted out sketches that showed particular situations that leave children vulnerable to drug use. There was the consummate peer pressure skit but the actors also emphasized the need for parents to set boundaries and ask pointed questions about where their children will be, what they will be doing and who they will be doing it with. The skits showed that a child more involved in school and in a close relationship with their parents is less likely to abuse drugs.

The forum had some startling facts but they are ones the community will need to face, said Don McConkey, assistant superintendent of the district.

"Other school districts have shied away from what they hear," McConkey said. "We don't."

Not only is the district asking the hard questions, it's also responding to the data it's gathered, said Kristy Sullivan, a member of the Snoqualmie Valley School District Board of Directors. She said the district has been one of the most progressive in the state by promoting community awareness of teenage health issues.

"I am proud of our community and the district for continuing to care enough to ask our kids these questions," she said. "The health of our students is as important as their academics."

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