New survey data has leaders thinking about how to better educate Upvalley students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
The California Healthy Kids Survey, administered to public school students across the state, measures how kids’ use of drugs and alcohol – and their perception of how harmful those substances are – changes over time.
The good news is that kids up to ninth grade tend to see drugs and alcohol as harmful and risky. The bad news is that somewhere between grades 9 and 11, usage rates go up and the perception of harm goes down.
The survey results aren’t surprising, but they are of great interest to the UpValley Partnership for Youth Coalition, which aims to prevent youth alcohol and drug use. The coalition is made up of police, parents, substance abuse professionals, and other people who work with youth.
Members of the coalition say the data demonstrates a need for more prevention and intervention from the end of ninth grade through 10th grade. They say alcohol and drugs, including marijuana, can cause lasting damage to adolescents’ brains, which don’t stop developing until the mid-20s.
“Kids coming out of middle school and entering the first part of high school are really strong in how they feel about substances,” said Regina Penna, program coordinator for the coalition. “They’ve learned all the DARE messages. Somewhere between 10th and 11th grade, they sort of fall off the rails.”
The community’s goal should be to educate students about drugs and alcohol and empower them to make healthy, informed choices about substances that can affect their still-developing brains, Penna said.
“As a community, we need to look at how to strengthen what we’re doing so that the messages that they’re getting in middle school and early high school carry them through,” she said.
In 2015, 18 percent of ninth-graders in St. Helena and 10 percent of ninth-graders in Calistoga reported having used alcohol in the past 30 days. In 2017, the rate of use among that same group of students, now 11th-graders, was 38 percent in St. Helena and 34 percent in Calistoga.
Over that same period, students – especially in St. Helena – also became much less convinced that marijuana was risky and harmful. In 2015, 71 percent of St. Helena ninth-graders believed marijuana was risky and harmful, 87 percent believed their parents would disapprove of them using it, and 60 percent believed their own peers would disapprove.
By the time they were in 11th grade, only 36 percent saw it as risky and harmful, 82 percent believed their parents would disapprove, and only 34 percent thought their peers would disapprove.
The legalization of marijuana for adults – first medicinal and then recreational – has resulted in fewer teens seeing it as harmful and risky, Penna said.
“We used to be able to say ‘Don’t do it because it’s illegal,’” Penna said. “(Legalization) kind of took the wind out of parents’ sails. They don’t know what to say to kids now.”
While the use of traditional cigarettes is decreasing among youth, the use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, is on the rise. The survey shows that students don’t perceive vaping to be as hazardous as it actually is, Penna said. However, vaping is less common among students in St. Helena and Calistoga than it is in Napa.
At its August meeting, the coalition will talk about how to make sure the whole community is sending the message that youth alcohol and drug use is harmful and dangerous.
That will probably involve teaching parents how to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs, evaluating how city policies on issues like marijuana dispensaries reflect community values, holding focus groups, and spreading the word about social host ordinances that hold adults responsible for underage drinking that occurs on their property.
Indira Lopez, program director for the UpValley Family Centers, said parents as well as students need to be educated. At a recent meeting with parents, she asked how many of them knew what a live marijuana plant looks like.
“Only one person raised their hand,” Lopez said. “For most of them, if they see it on the street or in their neighbor’s backyard they wouldn’t recognize it.”
Parents tend to notice when their kids have been using alcohol, but many of them don’t know the telltale signs of marijuana use, Lopez said.
Parents also need to know more about vaping, which didn’t even exist during their high school days. Penna said there’s a company in Colorado that makes special clothing to facilitate vaping, including a Camelbak-like backpack “so you can vape on the go.”
“Staying on top of all this is very difficult,” Penna said. “No wonder parents get overwhelmed.”
Penna and Lopez agreed that the challenges revealed by the survey are tough but not insurmountable, as long as parents and the community work together.
“If everybody’s singing the same song, (students) are going to get that same message,” Penna said.