This is the time of year the parents of teenagers just dread. There are proms, graduations and too many excuses for young people to party. Late-night telephone calls are scary beyond words, especially if a crash has recently claimed another young person.
But if we are to take to heart the data from the 2011 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Study Report for the Montpelier School District, we should be worrying every day. And not just in the Capital City. The information is compiled from high schools across the state, and the results are quite consistent, startling and serious cause for concern.
Every other year since 1993, the Department of Health Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs and the Department of Education Student Health and Learning team sponsor the study, which measures the prevalence of behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disease and injury among the state’s youth.
Similar results are available for other Vermont schools.
Before 2011, students in grades eight through 12 took the survey. In 2011, two surveys were conducted — one for students in grades six through eight; another for students in grades nine through 12. Overall, the survey is designed to “start the conversation with teens,” increase awareness (for teens and parents) and gauge what resources might be needed in communities to better address the needs of teens engaging in high-risk behavior. Participation by school and individual students is voluntary.
“In most cases, the majority of adolescents are NOT engaging in risky behaviors,” the authors of the study wrote in their introduction.
But if Montpelier’s results are even the slightest indicator of the behaviors of Vermont’s teens, parents should be lying awake at night.
The study looks at issues of personal safety (seat belt use, bullying, fighting, suicidality); alcohol, tobacco and drug use; sexual behavior and orientation; body image; nutrition and physical activity; and general measures of youth assets (community connectivity and parental conversations about school).
In Montpelier, 252 out of 324 high school students, or 78 percent of the student body, participated in the nonscientific survey. Their identities were kept secret. Of the participants, 137 were girls; 112 were boys (some did not indicate their gender). They included 73 freshmen, 75 sophomores, 49 juniors and 50 seniors. That’s a pretty good mix of a majority of the student body.
Assuming that most students answered the survey honestly, the results show us that most students are engaging in high-risk behaviors of one kind or another.
Let’s ease into this.
Eighty percent of students said they ride bicycles; 43 percent said they rarely or never wear helmets. Only 17 percent said they always wear helmets.
While 64 percent of students said they wear seat belts, 32 percent said they rode in cars with someone smoking pot, 22 percent said the driver had been drinking, 13 percent admitted to driving stoned, and 6 percent admitted driving after drinking.
While most students felt safe at school, 20 percent — mostly boys but a few girls — had been in a physical fight in the last year, and 4 percent admitted they had carried a weapon (such as a gun, knife or club) to school in the previous month.
Nearly two thirds of the surveyed students admitted drinking alcohol — many of them hard liquor. Half of students said it had been given to them.
Nearly half the students surveyed admitted smoking pot. Many others had tried inhalants, cocaine, hallucinogens and other drugs.
Forty-one percent had had sex; 30 percent had had sex once in the last month; 41 percent had had oral sex. Fortunately, 59 percent said they had used a condom during intercourse.
One in four students admitted to feeling hopeless “almost every day for two weeks or more” in the last year; 12 percent had made a suicide plan; 4 percent had made a suicide attempt in the last year. Some students admitted to bullying others, and many others said they had been bullied.
As for video game use, nutrition and physical activity, let’s just sum it up in school terms: Needs improvement.
Some good news?
Forty-one percent of the students who said they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days had “tried to quit.”
A few girls saw themselves as fat or obese, but 61 percent saw themselves “about the right weight.” (However, 40 percent of the surveyed students admitted they were trying to diet; 15 percent said they were trying to gain weight.)
One in three students reported talking to parents or guardians about the risks of smoking, drug or alcohol abuse in the last year.
One in three, out of 250 students who took the survey.
As parents, guardians, professionals and adults, we must do better. As much as we dread the truth and hate the awkwardness of these conversations, we must have them. These results suggest our children are crying out for attention, and they are not heeding the advice, counsel and guidance we, as a society and as citizens, are imparting.
Our teenagers are doing exactly what we are hoping and praying they aren’t doing when they are out of our sight. They are not hearing what needs to be said.
Time for the conversation, folks.
Because tomorrow really could be too late.MORE IN Editorials
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