Teen surveys: No vice is off limits

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By Jennifer Garcia

Every community has its issues with teens using drugs and alcohol, having sex, skipping school, bullying and suicide. Los Alamos is no different.
Every year, Los Alamos Middle School and Los Alamos High School students take surveys, which ask them about issues like marijuana, cigarette and alcohol use and sexual activity.
At Thursday night’s board of education meeting, Morrie Pongratz presented the results of this year’s survey. Students have taken the “Pride” survey every year since 1988.
The purpose of the survey is to educate school personnel, law enforcement, students and parents about problem behaviors and also to educate parents about the effectiveness of prevention techniques. The data from the surveys is also used by agencies to secure grant funding.
The students answered questions about alcohol use, which showed a jump from eighth to ninth grade. 7.4 percent of students reported using alcohol in seventh grade. That number shows a steady increase as students get older, resulting in a 38.2 percentage of students reporting alcohol use in 12th grade. The questioning got more specific, asking if it was liquor or beer that students used on a regular basis. The question was, “during the past 30 days, what type of alcohol did you usually drink?” Results showed that ninth graders typically drink beer, while 12th graders prefer hard liquor. The results also showed that students drink the most on weekends.
“More students are drinking liquor rather than beer,” Pongratz said. “They’re drinking to get high. Liquor’s quicker.”
Marijuana use among students also saw a jump in usage as students move from seventh to 12th grade. Only 3.3 percent of seventh graders admitted to smoking marijuana, while 31.2 percent of seniors said they have used it in the past 30 days.
Perhaps one of the most stunning results is where teens are smoking pot. In the seniors polled, 20.4 percent reported smoking marijuana in the car. Los Alamos students are on par with the rest of the state when it comes to marijuana use. Twenty-eight percent of New Mexico students have reported current marijuana use, while 24.7 percent of Los Alamos students reported current use.
In the Youth Risk Resiliency Survey (YRRS), which is taken every two years, a decline in cigarette smoking is becoming evident. The trend declined from 2005 to 2009. In 2005, 22.1 percent of students said they smoked, compared to 17.7 percent in 2009.
According to the surveys, suicide is also an issue in Los Alamos County. Suicide attempts resulting in injury were reported by 3.9 percent of females, while 6.6 percent of males have attempted it and sustained injuries. 18.9 percent of females admitted to making a suicide plan, while 14.2 percent of males have made one. Sadness and hopelessness is another big issue for the teens that took the survey; 33.6 percent of females reported feeling sad and hopeless, while 25.5 percent of males reported having those feelings.
“The girls are sadder and more depressed than the boys,” Pongratz said. “Fifteen percent of eighth grade girls thought about committing suicide in 2008. That number dropped to 10 percent this year.”
An uptick in sexual behavior is also seen as students get older. Twenty percent of ninth graders, 23.8 percent of sophomores, 36.3 percent of juniors and 49.2 percent of seniors reported having sexual intercourse at least once. Despite the findings, a high percentage also reported being taught about health consequences such as AIDS and HIV at school.
Pongratz said there are cross correlations in the surveys that he has been tracking for the past 15 years. He said his findings show there is a strong correlation between skipping school and poor grades. There’s also a strong correlation between marijuana use and poor grades.
When it comes to alcohol use, there’s a strong correlation between alcohol use and skipping school. In addition, heavy drinkers are four times more likely to skip school than non-drinkers.
The results also showed that “big drinkers” are 1.4 times more likely to spend lots of time engaged in sports than non-drinkers.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that if your child is in sports, they’re not going to drink,” Pongratz said.
Smokers are more than three times more likely to skip school than non-smokers and they’re also three times more likely to be drinkers than non-smokers. They are also over 12 times more likely to use marijuana than non-smokers.
Sexual activity is correlated with single parent families. Smoking is strongly correlated with sexual activity and so is drinking.
The survey also showed that parents who set clear rules can make a big difference. In households where rules are established, 37.8 percent of students reported never using cigarettes; 40.5 percent reported never using alcohol; and 35.1 percent reported never using marijuana. In addition, there was a significant drop in beer drinking after the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board was established in 2004.
In 2004, about 26 percent of the seniors polled reported drinking beer once a week or more. That number declined to 24 percent the following year, but by 2011, the percentage was at 16.
Pongratz said the first step in fixing the problem is agreeing that there is a problem, then agreeing on a solution.
“The data is really spooky for the ninth graders,” he said.