State and school district officials took a close look at teen behavior during a recent analysis of annual survey results. Distributed in October 2012 with results posted in early March, the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) asked seventh, ninth and eleventh grade students about their attitudes and actions regarding a variety of resiliency, protective factors and risk behaviors.
According to state Department of Education, the CHKS has led to a better understanding of the relationship between students' health behaviors and academic performance. In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, the survey is used by district and site climate committees.
The district surveyed 4,073 middle and high school students, as well as 1,971 fifth graders, on four focus areas: alcohol usage, marijuana use, safety and school connectedness. All numbers were cross checked with factors such as as race/ethnicity and household makeup.
Drugs and alcohol remain the two most frequently used drugs, primarily because of accessibility. Although 94 percent of seventh graders had never had alcohol and 98 never smoked marijuana, compared with 80 percent and 90 percent of ninth graders, 48 percent of their 11th grade peers had drank alcohol four or more times. Sixty-two percent had smoked pot four or more times.
Of those eleventh graders, 77 percent said it was "fairly" or "very" easy to obtain alcohol; 71 percent said it was similarly easy to find marijuana. Over 50 percent of students surveyed from alternative, continuation or community day schools (labeled NT on the survey) said obtaining both substances were easy.
"The trend is really going down and has been pretty steadily since 1999," said Scott Gerbert, coordinator of SRVUSD's Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program. "I think there are a number of factors, some of them are education based both for students and parents. But I also think that things have changed in both the state of California and federally."
Gerbert cited changes in driver's license rules, which requires that teens have their license for a year before driving with another minor. Teen drivers are also subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, which Gerbert said decreases the some of the risk behaviors associated with sex, drinking and drug use.
"It decreases the chance of kids being the designated driver while five of their friends drink," he said. "I don't know if it was an intended consequence or not, but I think there's a lot of changes around the risk-taking behaviors. That's just one piece of a much bigger puzzle."
Of the eleventh graders that drank or used marijuana at the time of the survey, a majority started using between ages 15 and 16. Fifty-five percent of respondents labeled NT said they had engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days and 61 percent said they used drugs. Thirty-six percent of NT students called themselves heavy users, compared with 9 percent of eleventh graders and 3 percent of ninth graders.
Very small numbers of students reported smoking cigarettes and a majority of students across grade levels said they strongly disapproved of smoking. Few students reported using inhalants, tranquilizers/sedatives or cocaine while 5 percent of seventh and ninth graders, and 17 percent of eleventh graders had used cough or cold medicine to get high four or more times.
Gerbert said SRVUSD officials want to continue to look at prescription drug use and abuse, as 4 percent of ninth grade students and 9 percent of eleventh graders had tried prescription pills. Forty-four percent of NT students had tried such painkillers. In the 2011-12 survey, 6 percent of 9th grade and 9 percent of 11th grade students reported using pills; NT students were not surveyed.
Additionally, 24 percent of eleventh grade students had used Ecstasy four or more times and 17 percent had tried LSD or psychedelics four or more times.
Gerbert noted that students tend to think risky behaviors, particularly drinking, happen more than they actually do.
"Students have a tendency to poo-poo the data, saying other students don't take it seriously, say it's inaccurate, there's more of us doing xyz," he said. "When I asked them to really look at data...the ones that aren't drinking think they're in the minority."
When surveying students in a "fishbowl" exercise, one said they thought alcohol use numbers would be higher around prom or ball as opposed to when CHKS is administered in October. Seventh and ninth graders are young and the juniors aren't partying at that time of the year, the student said, adding that it's "only really the popular group that's doing the partying and drinking."
Perception about peer activities is often radically different than what actually goes on, the survey states.
When asked to estimate what percentage of their peers smoked marijuana, 26 percent of 7th graders assumed at least some percentage of their peers used (74 percent said no one did); 75 percent of freshman assumed the same with the most common estimate at 10 percent; 92 percent of juniors assumed their classmates smoked with a majority believing between 10 and 70 percent; a majority of NT students believed most of their classmates smoke pot.
"Even though I feel like almost everyone at the school drinks, I am realizing that not everyone actually gets invited to parties on the weekend. There are 2000 people at my school and I bet that only around 200 of them get invited...but we ALL hear about the parties on Facebook and at school," a student told Gerbert.
Still, the majority of students felt they had caring adult relationships, high expectations and opportunities for meaningful participation at school and in the community. Most felt safe on campus with few reporting physical fights or a fear of being beaten up. Between 90 and 98 percent of all students had never carried a gun -- most had never carried another weapon or been threatened with one -- and approximately 80 percent of all students strongly disapprove of having weapons.
An average of 22 percent of students had been harassed for some kind of hate crime (described as race/ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical/mental disability) while an average of 30.5 percent reported being harassed for other reasons. Black or African American students had the highest response rates 49 percent for 7th graders, 44 percent for freshman and 34 percent for juniors for hate crime-related harassment.
"That's one areas where, as a district, I would love to see us focus more attention," Gerbert said of bullying. "While some of trends such as marijuana and alcohol usage have shown a steady decrease, some of the bullying reasons have stayed fairly flat."
Cyber bullying was less prevalent, with the majority of students reporting that they had never been bullied over the Internet.
"Students are still having gradual growth in those areas. I think that a big part has had to do with efforts the school board and school district have made to be more inclusive and really try to discourage bullying and discrimination," Gerbert said.
In general, boys tended to use more alcohol/drugs and be more involved in high-risk patterns than their female classmates. Girls tended to think that alcohol and drug use was more harmful than boys.
More girls tended to feel "so sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that you stopped doing some usual activities," with CHKS showing a 4-13 percent gender difference.
Overall, lifetime and current alcohol and drug use, along with other high-risk patterns, tended to be lower in the San Ramon Valley than the state average as listed in the California Student Survey which combines data from freshman and junior continuation/alternative school students with data from comprehensive school students.