Are Sandwich Teens Taking The Risk?

The town’s Substance Abuse Task Force met this week to discuss the results of a survey of Sandwich school students concerning risky behaviors, including drug and alcohol use.

Students in grades 6 through 12 took part in the survey, which was administered back in May by The Outcomes Project, a professional program planning agency from Brockton that had been hired by the town to develop, administer and tabulate the results of a risky behaviors survey.

The students were asked a series of questions related to their use (or non-use) of drugs and alcohol, tendencies toward depression or suicide, concerns over personal safety, violence and bullying, and engagement in sexual activity.

The majority of the numbers that came back showed Sandwich High School below both state and national averages when it came to participating in risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use and having sex. This may come as a surprising relief to those in town who believe Sandwich’s children are more apt to dabble in drugs and alcohol.

Equally satisfying for the task force was the high percentage of students, 70 to 85 percent at Sandwich High School, who said they had a teacher or other adult at school, as well as a parent or adult family member, to whom they could talk about a problem.

The statistics drawing the most concern for members of the task force were the numbers showing the perception among students of how many of their peers were engaging in certain types of risky behavior versus the actual number. According to the survey, only 39 percent of Sandwich High students admitted to drinking alcohol in a 30-day period prior to the survey, while 95 percent said they believed that students would have answered “yes” to the question.

A similar disparity was found to be in place among middle school students (those in grades 6 through 8). While only 7 percent of students admitted to alcohol use, 53 percent perceived that middle school students in town drank alcohol.

According to the organizers of the survey, that difference in percentage creates an “invisible peer pressure” among students. For the task force, that perception is a key problem that must be dealt with, not just among teens, but among the community at large.

Ralph A. Vitacco, a selectman in town, said the group wants to take a comprehensive approach to the issue of substance abuse by getting at the underlining reasons why people turn to drugs.
“It’s a total wellness approach,” Mr. Vitacco said.

According to Sandwich Chief of Police Peter N. Wack, a member of the task force’s executive board, part of the task force’s job will be to take an inventory of resources already in place in the community for tackling the problem of substance abuse, hotlines or support groups like Marie Bruce’s Community Youth Project at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Chief Wack said while the survey numbers may show Sandwich schools in line with the state and the nation, the goal of the task force is “to bring it to as close to zero as possible.”

For Linell M. Grundman, also a selectman and a member of the task force, reaching out to the community through marketing, education and focus groups is critical to addressing the issue of substance abuse because risky behaviors are learned behaviors. She noted that 10 percent of the kids surveyed said their parents served them alcohol.

“We also need to ask ourselves, “ she said, “what we want for our community. While the numbers may look good compared to the state, is that what I want for my kids?”

According to Lisa Marschke, program director of The Outcomes Project, the survey is slightly flawed, since it was given on senior skip day, a day when many students and some underclassmen were absent.
Students choose senior skip day virtually overnight, so school officials had no warning to reschedule the survey.

Those students who were absent were not given the survey at a later date because, as Ms. Marschke said, “kids talk.” She said if kids know ahead of time they are going to be taking a survey, they often tell each other to “b-s their way through the questions.” Results are better, she said, if students are surprised with the survey.

According to Ms. Marschke, there were some surveys not used in the study because it appeared a student might have exaggerated in the responses.

These few glitches aside, Ms. Grundman said the survey is a great starting point for addressing a problem that affects the entire community. “The numbers,” she said, “are just a snapshot, a way to start to talk about the issues.”

In addition to the formation of the substance abuse task force, Sandwich Cares, a past program that focused on the issue of substance abuse, is returning as of November 23. Part of that program will call for adults to sign a pledge not to sell or serve alcohol to minors.

With the numbers from the survey now in place, the task force can apply for grant money. The grant money gives the task force the opportunity to create, then execute, a plan for addressing the issue of substance abuse in Sandwich. The ultimate aim is to fund a coalition that would morph into a town-budgeted entity.

“We’re just at the beginning,” Mr. Vitacco said of the task force. “We want to make a positive impact on the entire town.”



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