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Survey results: What are your kids up to?

Presenting results from the 2009 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey to the Archuleta School District 50 Joint board on Tuesday, Prevention Specialist Anna Royer emphasized the need for continued sexual health and drug and alcohol education, especially from the middle-school level through high school.

The survey examines several areas of students’ attitudes and behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, violence and delinquency, attitudes towards school and education and personal affect.

The district has conducted the survey for the past three years and the first piece of data to stand out was that response rates for the survey have decreased each year since the survey began.

Of the students who did respond in 2009, some of the data was encouraging, but that news was tempered with attitudes and behaviors that could be viewed as troubling.

On the upside, students reported less frequent substance abuse during the last 30 days prior to the survey. Whereas the three-year average showed 40 percent of students reporting alcohol use in the 30 days, in 2009 that number dropped to 35 percent. Likewise, the average of students reporting binge drinking during the 30 days had been 30 percent, with just 26 percent of respondents in 2009. Cigarette smoking during the 30 days was also down, with 19 percent for the average and 15 percent during 2009.

In 2009, respondents also showed a decrease in reported lifetime substance abuse. Sixty-one percent reported having used alcohol at least once in their life, with marijuana a distant second, at 35 percent. Close behind was cigarette smoking at 34 percent and illegal prescription drugs a distant fourth, at 23 percent.

Not reported in the survey, Royer said, “My students think that hallucinogens should be up there with prescription drug use in fourth place.”

Royer was quick to point out that 66 percent of respondents had never tried cigarettes, 65 percent had never tried marijuana and 39 percent had never tried alcohol.

Royer conceded that attitudes have shifted regarding drug use, specifically pot. “The conversation here in Pagosa Springs has radically changed with the medical marijuana issue,” she said, stating that more and more students are viewing marijuana as medically beneficial and socially acceptable.

What was telling about lifetime use was that, most respondents reported first-time use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana between the ages of 11 and 14, the ages of 13 and 14 being the most prevalent for first-time use.

Compared to the national average, district respondents reported less lifetime alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use — 61 percent locally for alcohol compared with 73 percent nationally; 34 percent in the district for tobacco compared to 46 percent nationally; and for marijuana 35 percent reported ever having used it compared to 37 percent nationally.

However, use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana during the 30-day period were similar to national averages, with the district just a point lower at 42 percent for alcohol, a point lower than the 20 percent national average for tobacco, and matching the national average of 21 percent for marijuana use.

Regarding sexual behavior, all respondents reported less sexual intercourse than the three-year average, with 44 percent of males and 39 percent of females reporting ever having had sexual intercourse, compared with 47 percent for the average. Likewise, those numbers fell significantly in 2009 for ninth- and 10th-graders, with 22 percent of girls and 26 percent of boys in the ninth grade reporting ever having sexual intercourse compared to 32 percent for the average. In the 2009 survey, 38 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys in the 10th-grade reported ever having had sexual intercourse, much lower than the 45 percent reported in the average.

Eleventh-graders exceeded the average, however, with 59 percent of girls and 56 percent of boys reporting ever having sexual intercourse compared with 53 percent for the average. Seniors, on the other hand, showed mixed results, with 38 percent of 12th-grade girls in 2009 reporting ever having sexual intercourse, much lower than the 59 percent average, but 12th-grade boys reporting 68 percent in 2009.

In 2007, 52 percent of all respondents reported ever having sexual intercourse, compared to 46 percent in 2008 and just 41 percent in 2009.

While it appears students in Archuleta County are having less sex, Royer admitted that, with a smaller percentage responding to the survey in 2009 ( 74 percent, compared to 79 percent in 2008 and 85 percent in 2007) it was difficult to say, with any certainty, that students are becoming less sexually active.

In the aggregate for sexual behavior, district students were in line with national averages for ever having had sexual intercourse (the district’s 47 percent average just a percentage point below the national average); the local average of 39 percent for reporting the non-use of condoms or reliable birth control exactly matched the national average. However, the national average of 22 percent reporting to have used drugs and/or alcohol during last sexual intercourse was far exceeded by district respondents, who were 15 points higher at 37 percent.

In the area of risk and protective factors, district students also showed mixed results. 76 percent of respondents felt their parents were supportive of them in that their parents were, “interested in my school work, talks with me about my problems, listens to me, expects me to follow rules, believes I will be a success, always wants me to do my best,” but over 60 percent also reported “parental attitudes favorable to antisocial behavior.”

Unfortunately, the district exceeded the national average in several areas that should cause alarm for parents and educators. 10 percent of district respondents reported having attempted suicide, compared with the national average of 6 percent.

The most troubling statistic was for early initiation (before age 13) to substance abuse and sexual activity, areas where the district led (sometimes significantly) in all categories. Thirty-four percent of district respondents said they had tried alcohol before turning 13, compared with 21 percent nationally; 19 percent of district respondents had tried cigarettes compared with 11 percent nationally; 15 percent had tried marijuana compared with 8 percent nationally; and 9 percent of district respondents reported having had sexual intercourse before the age of 13, compared with 6 percent nationally.

Royer attributed the districts numbers for early initiation to a ”low perceived risk of harm” and “favorable attitude towards” those behaviors.

On a positive note, 93 percent of district respondents considered it important or very important to finish high school.

It should be important to note that the survey was conducted in October 2009 and students in the district had not been given much exposure to the new substance abuse and sexual health curriculum (which was not provided to all grades). In fact, the full impact of the new curriculum may not be known for several years, as the district works to fully implement the program and students have exposure to various aspects of the program over time.

Should surveys indicate, several years down the road, diminished substance abuse and sexual behavior across all age levels, the newly adopted sexual health and substance abuse curriculum will most likely be gauged a success.

Until then, district parents will need to determine how to best address the more troubling aspects of the 2009 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

jim@pagosasun.com