Local students anti-drug efforts pay off

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

More students in Chittenden South Supervisory Union are delaying involvement with alcohol and other drugs, due in part to the efforts of Williston students and a local organization.

CSSU Board members on Monday night reviewed recently-released data from two surveys which indicate a drop in risky behavior among Chittenden South’s younger students over the last six to ten years.

Students who delay alcohol and other drug use – even if they eventually use – are better off than those who start young.

“It’s much harder to become addicted to substances the later you start,” explained Margo Austin, a certified alcohol and drug counselor who is the new peer prevention educator at Champlain Valley Union High School. “The earlier kids start using, the more likely they are to become addicted.”

Austin’s three-day-a-week position is funded through Connecting Youth (CY), a local coalition offering programs which assist students in making healthy choices, specifically those that reduce substance abuse and violence. In addition to Austin, CY employs a full-time coordinator and four certified drug and alcohol counselors, including Karen Okun, who works full-time at CVU, and Jen Bickel, who is at Williston Central School three days a week.

Connecting Youth, in existence since 1990, involves a number of Williston students at both the middle and high school levels who educate peers about substance use. Three Williston students – Jonathan Bateman, Blair Pierson, & Kate Smith – serve on the Board of Directors, according to Connecting Youth coordinator Dayna Scott.

Students involved at all levels believe their efforts can make a difference.

“Activities and weeks like Red Ribbon Week are important,” said Mireille Kelley, a Williston Central School eighth grader who is a member of Vermont Kids Against Tobacco (VKAT). Red Ribbon Week is a nationally-designated drug education and prevention event.

“With the things they learn from VKAT and the other activities that we hold,” Mireille continued, “they give kids information and the exact statistics about why (substances) are bad and give people a real reason to not smoke or do drugs.”

Red Ribbon Week will be recognized at Williston Central School a few weeks beyond its designated dates (October 23 – 31) due to school testing. Student members of Leadership Education: the Anti-Drug (LEAD) and Vermont Kids Against Tobacco will co-facilitate a student and parent dialogue night as well as create posters to assist with the educational campaign.

Eighth grader Alexander Partelow thinks that kids need those kinds of reminders because “it seems to me that more kids are getting into drugs and smoking,” he said at last Friday’s VKAT meeting. When questioned which kids, Alex said he thinks high school students are using more, “not so much of my peers” at the middle school level.

Alex’s perception of middle school student substance use is well-supported by data released this month from the Student Attitude, Opinion and Behavior Survey. The survey, administered to sixth and seventh graders biennially and sponsored by CSSU, indicates a significant drop in substance use over the last ten years.

From 1995 to 2005, for example, the district’s seventh graders who were surveyed reported using alcohol in the preceding year dropped from 39 percent to 9 percent. Comparing the same years, seventh grade students who reported using cigarettes in the preceding year dropped from 12 percent to 2 percent. Marijuana usage dropped one percent; in the spring, 2 percent of seventh graders self-reported using marijuana in the preceding year.

Scott also noted in a memo to CSSU school administrators that progress is being made among CVU ninth graders, according to data just released from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

From 1999 to 2005, CVU ninth graders who were surveyed who reported “ever trying” alcohol dropped from 58 percent to 43percent. In this same time period, CVU ninth graders who reported ever smoking a cigarette dropped from 37 percent to 14 percent; those reporting ever trying marijuana dropped from 28 percent to 20 percent.

Both surveys, which are voluntary, were taken by students last February. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been administered to all CVU students since 1995. Sponsored by the state Departments of Health and Education, the survey also has been taken by eighth grade students since 1999.

In spite of the progress made toward Connecting Youth’s goal of delaying the onset of substance use among the district’s students, much work remains to be done.

Among the district’s students who were surveyed in grades 8-12, twenty-two percent reported being offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property in the previous twelve months – 11 percent of 8 th graders and 29 percent of seniors. Alcohol was reported as “easy to get” by 70 percent of the same student population. Eight percent reported having tried cocaine in their lifetime.

“We’re talking about kids’ lives here,” said CVU peer prevention educator Margo Austin.

High school activities coordinated by Austin and the students with whom she works are designed to give clear options for how students spend their free time.

Rachel Salvatori, a Williston resident, said that CVU LEAD is planning an overnight retreat in November that hopes to draw 30-40 students.

Being involved in prevention activities “shows that there are other people out there that don’t do drugs or make destructive decisions,” said Salvatori, a senior who got involved with LEAD because of retreats she attended in middle school. “There are other things you can do to have fun without hurting yourself or others,” she continued.

Salvatori and others note the importance of remembering there are many students who consistently make healthy choices.

“I think there’s a good number of people that don’t” use alcohol or other drugs, said Salvatori. “I have plenty of friends that don’t. There’s enough diversity at CVU that you’ll find a group of friends that agree with your point of view.”

Connecting Youth programs will be expanding in the coming years. A recent grant received by CY has “probably” increased their budget by twenty percent, according to Scott. The Drug-Free Communities Support grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration & the Office of National Drug Control Policy will provide the organization with $100,000 per year for five years. Eighty percent of CY’s budget is self-generated through grants; the remainder of the budget comes from school and community sources.