Sandwich Public Forum Set To Delve Into Results Of Student Risky Behavior Survey
By: Michael J. Rausch
The results of a survey of risky behaviors that was administered to Sandwich students in grades 6 to 12 will be at the center of public forum on March 18, titled "Creating a Community Aware, Engaged, and Addressing Youth Risky Behavior."
The survey asked students about their participation in a wide range of risky behaviors ranging from drug abuse and alcohol use to sex and suicide. Questions also focused on students' emotional well-being, asking them about how free they feel to talk with a teacher or parent if they have a problem, whether they have ever attempted or considered suicide, or if they had been the victim or perpetrator of bullying.
Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force member Linell M. Grundman called the results of the survey both eye-opening and affirming.
"We're trying to improve the environment of the people and families that live here," Ms. Grundman said of the efforts being made by the task force, which is hosting the March forum.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey was administered by The Outcomes Project, a division of Health Imperatives, a Brockton-based company committed to promoting public and personal health. The survey was conducted on November 16 of last year. On that day, 67 students were absent from Sandwich High School, so those students did not participate. In addition, 68 surveys that were filled out were removed from the final test sampling as part of what The Outcomes Project called "data cleaning."
Data cleaning is a process by which the submitted surveys were visually examined for signs of "doodling" in the pages margins, which is evidence that the student was not paying close attention to the questions.
Twenty students were removed for this reason. The survey also contained one question that asked students about their use of a fictional drug. Another 20 surveys were removed because students said that they had used the fake drug. The last criteria that led to a survey being removed were inconsistency and exaggeration. If a student's answers were inconsistent from one question to another, or if they always chose the highest possible usage rate for a substance, their survey was not included. Twenty-eight surveys were removed for inconsistency and exaggeration.
Jennifer M. Hohl, an analyst with The Outcomes Project, said that the surveys were anonymous and confidential. "So we get the most accurate responses," Ms. Hohl said.
She said the questions in the survey were taken from a Youth Risk Survey that is conducted by the state every two years. She said that her group is confident that the results of the survey are valid "because of the measures we take," referring to their data cleaning process.
Among the 6th through 8th graders, 27 students were absent the day the survey was handed out, and 31 surveys were removed through data cleaning.
A similar survey was administered to students in grades 6 to 12 in May of 2011, however, it was inadvertently conducted on "senior skip day," when a large number of students did not attend school. Those absent students were not given the survey at a later date because the testers believed their answers might have been tainted by communicating with their peers about the questions ahead of time.
Ms. Hohl said that her company does not advise communities on the results of the survey, nor do they speculate on the meaning behind the numbers. "We leave that up to the community," she said.
Ms. Grundman said that the results of this year's survey are "not significantly different from a year ago," pointing out that Sandwich is right at or below the national average on some of the issues.
For instance, 65 percent of Sandwich High students said that they drink alcohol compared to 68 percent across the state and 71 percent across the country. Among town high schoolers, 40 percent said they use marijuana. That matched the national average, while the state average came in at 43 percent.
In grades 6 to 8, 18.5 percent said they drank alcohol, nearly matching the state’s average of 20 percent, and 4 percent said they have used marijuana, a slight dip from the state average of 8 percent.
Ms. Grundman said there were some numbers that alarmed her, specifically the upward trend in the attempted suicide rate.
In the previous survey, 6 percent of Sandwich High students said they had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. This time, that number is up to 10 percent. Statewide, the number was 7 percent, while nationally, it was 8 percent. Among middle schoolers, 6 percent admitted to attempting suicide in the past year, compared to 4 percent statewide.
"We want to look at the whys that kids get depressed and self-medicate and want to take their own life," she said.
Ms. Grundman said that she was also alarmed by the high percentage of students who admitted to being bullied. Among high school students, the survey showed a 9 percent increase over the state average, nearly matching the results of the 2011 survey. For students in grades 6 through 8, 43 percent said that they had been bullied on school property.
"We have to figure out what to do about it," she said. “We need to explore why it is in our schools so we can eradicate it."
There were some results that the group is encouraged by, Ms. Grundman said.
She pointed to a dip in the number of teenagers who said that they were served alcohol at home by their parents, and the high number of students who said that they can talk to either someone at school or someone at home about issues that are important to them.
One aspect of the survey can be viewed as both encouraging and cautionary. Students were asked for their perception of their peers' involvement in risky behaviors such as smoking cigarettes or marijuana, drinking alcohol or taking prescription drugs. That perceived number of student involvement was as much as 12 times the actual number.
The Outcomes Project noted that such a misperception can cause a student to feel pressure to engage in risky behaviors because they believe it is being done by so many other students. Ms. Grundman said that the actual percentage can be seen as “good news” since it is substantially less than the perceived number.
One of the biggest areas of concern for Ms. Grundman has less to do with the behavior of young people and more with that of adults, specifically referring to voters decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing medical marijuana. She said she is convinced that legalizing medicinal marijuana will lead to greater use among teenagers and the path will be paved to legalizing the drug for recreational use.
"This is not about scare tactics; young people's lives have been disrupted and destroyed because of our ambiguity about marijuana," she said.
Ms. Grundman said her hope is that the meeting on March 18 will lead to awareness and cultural change, suggesting that "if kids live in a community where a high amount of drinking is normal, they will drink."
She said that part of the task force's mission is to make people understand that they are not being judged, but what the survey results reveal is a community issue that affects the whole town.
"This is about all of us," she said.
The Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force forum will be held at Sandwich Town Hall on Monday, March 18, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.
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