Parents and teachers continually fret about what teens and young adults are up to in their free time, but the best way to know for sure what’s going on is to simply ask.
Using a Prevention Needs Assessment survey, funded by a federal Drug Free Communities Grant, the Niskayuna Community Action Program did just that. N-CAP compiled the answers, given anonymously by 1,444 sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders earlier this year. They presented the facts at Niskayuna High School the evening of Dec. 2.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to realize some of our young people have tried alcohol and even marijuana,” interim Niskayuna Central School District Superintendent John Yagielski said when the meeting began.
He stressed that the purpose of collecting and sharing the data would be to alleviate the risks associated with the experimentation that teens and young adults are bound to engage in. The main concerns expressed during the presentation were alcohol and marijuana use, but the survey also shed light on a variety of other problem behavior, ranging from gambling to prescription drug abuse and thoughts of suicide.
Across grades, the survey found alcohol was the most commonly abused substance. The most common time to begin experimenting with drinking is between eighth grade, when only 17.2 percent of students reported having had a drink or two at some point (the survey said sips from someone else’s drink didn’t count), to 10th grade, when 43.2 percent said they had done so.
There is some good news regarding alcohol use, however: The survey indicated that Niskayuna’s students are not very interested in combining substance abuse and schoolwork. Compared with a similar survey from 2008, the rates for having been drunk or high at school decreased in all grades. Most significantly, 8.6 percent of 10th-graders reported having been drunk or high at school in 2008; just 4.6 percent did in 2014. The trend among 12th-graders was even more pronounced, falling from 21.9 percent in 2008 to 9.7 percent in 2014.
In addition, the two places students said they were least likely to get drunk or high were near school property and on school property, though some expressed an affinity for using substances during sporting events. The survey didn’t specify where those would take place.
Few students attend
A day after the forum, Gabby Lambeth, 17, a senior member of the crew team and president of the Spanish Club, said she had no notice the forum was coming up.
“I was in my health class this morning, and my teacher brought up the forum,” she said. “I didn’t even know there was a forum last night.”
Lambeth said few things surprised her, including the number of 12th-graders who drink, which is less than half.
“I was kind of surprised it was that low of a number,” she said. “I don’t think the information is wrong; I was just surprised that many seniors didn’t drink.
“I don’t talk to people about it that often, but I figured more of my classmates would drink,” added Lambeth, who said she does not frequent the high school party scene.
She also noted that many, including her health teacher, had made a fuss about the three or four kids who admitted to trying heroin, including one middle-schooler.
“I’ve never heard of anyone in the school trying heroin,” she said. “I feel like that drug has more consequences. And most people, I think they wouldn’t know where to get that kind of drug.”
Lambeth said she does not think heroin is poised to become a problem, based on what she’s heard from friends and classmates.
Niskayuna tracked closely with national marijuana use patterns. In most grades, both lifetime use and recent use were a hair below average for the country. However, among 12th-graders, recent use (within 30 days) was above average, clocking in at 22.9 percent. In addition, more than 70 percent of 12th-graders said it would be easy or very easy to obtain marijuana if they wanted it, and a third said they knew an adult who smoked marijuana.
Niskayuna parents can breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to cigarette smoking among young people: Regular smoking among high school seniors in Niskayuna is just 7.2 percent, less than half the national average.
The survey revealed that students are unlikely to use inhalants, sedatives, prescription narcotics or heroin, although some small percentage reported they had tried these.
Before the results of the survey were revealed, Dr. Kevin Collins, a resident emergency room doctor at Albany Medical Center, gave a presentation about the effects of alcohol and other drugs on the developing brain. His slides displayed scans of healthy brains and damaged ones, which he described as looking “like swiss cheese.”
The presentation appeared to have an impact on the attendees, but the people filling the seats of Niskayuna High School’s Little Theater weren’t necessarily those the presentation needed to reach. Instead of high school students, parents and community members packed the seats.
“I’m shocked more people didn’t show up,” Niskayuna parent Demantra Constantine said. She and her husband, Thomas, who also attended the presentation, have two children in the high school and one who has graduated.
Demantra Constantine said it was helpful to be educated about which temptations were strongest for Niskayuna students. She said it helps her take a strict but fair approach to parenting.
“We’re their parents. We’re not their best friends,” she said. “I always tell the kids, ‘I was a teenager once, too.’ ”
Parents like the Constantines planned to bring what they had learned home to their children. However, the message of behavioral change extended not only to students, but to parents, as well.
Another highlight of the survey was the 62 middle school students who had ridden with drunken drivers in the 30 days before the survey was administered, which the presenter suggested could’ve been parents. In addition, as kids got older, they increasingly reported drinking at home with their parents’ permission.
Regardless of their own behaviors, parents seem to be open to talking with their kids about the dangers of substance abuse. Of those students surveyed, 59.1 percent indicated their parents had spoken to them in the past year of the risks of underage alcohol use. Similarly, 64.2 percent indicated their parents had spoken to them about the dangers of tobacco or drugs.
In addition to the standard Prevention Needs Assessment survey, which is used all over the country, N-CAP chose to add questions regarding suicide risk. They discovered that nearly 12 percent had considered suicide at least casually in the past year, while 5.8 percent had seriously considered it and 2.8 percent had attempted it. Nearly 40 percent said no one had talked with them about suicide prevention.
Bob Winchester, a member of both the district’s Board of Education and the N-CAP board, said he thought the survey results were an excellent starting point for ongoing awareness and education throughout the community.
“We need to say, ‘What do you see, and how does your experience reflect that? How is it different, and why?’ I think it’s conversations, it’s awareness,” Winchester said. “Our departments in the school district that deal with adolescent behavior need to be very aware of the statistics and have some education as to what they can do to help recognize the problems when they’re in front of them.”
A full executive summary of the survey results is available at N-CAP’s website, http://ncapnisky.org.