Teens taking risks

Survey: Alcohol, drugs prevalent in Steamboat Springs

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Although results from a survey of local high school students confirm an obvious theory -- that a structured, supportive home life reduces a teenager's tendency for potentially destructive behavior -- the survey also shows that some of those behaviors are escalating for Steamboat Springs' teens.

In October, 515 students at Steamboat Springs High School took the "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors" survey, prepared by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute. The survey questioned each student about 40 "developmental assets," or positive behaviors, as well as more than 30 "risk-taking behaviors" and patterns.

One risk-taking behavior studied by the survey is riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking, something that 42 percent of the students, and 49 percent of sophomores, said they had done in the past year. In 2002 and 2004, 36 percent of students said they had ridden with a drunk driver.

Alcohol use also is rising. Fifty-four percent of students said they had drank alcohol once or more in the past month, compared with 48 percent in 2004 and 45 percent in 2002. Although the older surveys asked students whether they had consumed alcohol "with the intention of getting drunk," and this year's survey asked only about use, the 2004 survey report states "there are very few adolescent social drinkers in the United States."

Marijuana use by the senior class is holding steady after a sharp increase two years ago. Sixty-five percent of seniors said they have used marijuana in the past year, compared with 64 percent in 2004 and 46 percent in 2002.

These and other risk-taking behaviors -- such as attempted suicide by 14 percent of students, or more than 50 teenagers -- are set against a backdrop of strong family support and community safety. Seventy-two percent of students said their family life provides "high levels" of love and support. Sixty-two percent said they feel safe at home, in school and in their neighborhood. Seventy-three per----cent said they are optimistic about their futures.

The survey report gives data that, across the board, correlates the presence of such developmental assets with fewer harmful activities.

"The more assets a kid has, the less at risk they are for trouble down the road," said Sandy Visnack, executive director of the Grand Futures Prevention Coalition. "With the assets approach, you're really looking at the positive sides of things."

A new approach

This is the first time the high school is focusing on developmental assets in its survey. Students answered questions about external assets involving their families and community, and about internal assets involving their beliefs, health habits, activities, academic motivation and principles such as honesty and integrity.

The Search Institute's analysis of survey responses says that of the 40 total assets, Steamboat students possess an average of 17.

"Nationwide, the average is 19," Visnack said.

The analysis says 50 percent of Steamboat students possess between 11 and 20 assets; 26 percent possess between 21 and 30; 20 percent possess between 0 and 10; and 4 percent of students possess more than 30 assets.

Throughout the survey, students who showed more assets also showed less risky behavior. One example is violence. Thirty-five percent of the total students surveyed said that in the past year they have engaged three or more times in fighting, hitting, injuring a person, carrying or using a weapon or threatening physical harm. Of those students, 56 percent possess 10 or fewer assets, according to the survey. Only 15 percent possess 20 or more assets.

Seeking role models

Missing assets often involve relationships between teenagers and local adults.

"Only 21 percent thought that there were positive adult role models in the community," Visnack said. "That's a big deal to me."

High school Principal Mike Knezevich pointed out that only 13 percent of students think they are valued by local adults.

"I think that's very surprising," Knezevich said.

He and Visnack are taking steps to respond to the survey results.

Wednesday and Thursday, Visnack led two training sessions for parents and community members interested in learning about the assets and how to strengthen them locally.

"One way would be just learning the names of the kids on your block," Visnack said. "There are very simple things that people don't necessarily think of all the time."

Visnack said 55 people attended the sessions.

At the high school Tuesday, students discussed the results during their "anchor" period and watched a video prepared by John Ameen's sociology class. The class examined the survey results as an exercise in analyzing data.

Analysis of the survey is a big project, Knezevich said.

"The data gave us more questions than it did answers," he said. "We have to learn more about why the kids responded the way they did."

'Extreme everything'

Grand Futures is a nonprofit organization with the goal of preventing substance abuse in Routt, Grand and Moffat counties. Visnack said Grand Futures offers a parenting class, began a youth tobacco coalition this year in South Routt and has helped Steamboat police with alcohol and tobacco compliance checks.

"A lot of the things we do are behind the scenes," she said.

Visnack said she was "not really" surprised by the survey results, given her experience in the field.

"I've been around those numbers a long time," she said.

Students in Ameen's sociology class, however, were surprised by the data.

A male senior could not believe that 17 percent of students at his school said they have used illicit drugs -- such as cocaine, LSD, heroin or amphetamines -- in the past year.

"I can probably name five kids," the student said after realizing that 17 percent of 515 equates to about 87 students. "Who are the rest of them?"

"That's a lot for the size of our school and for where we live," another student said.

Where we live could be part of the problem when it comes to drinking and drugs, Visnack said.

"There's extreme everything here, from skiing to drinking to whatever it is," she said. "That's typical resort community behavior."

Perceptions and reality

Visnack said alcohol and drug use by Steamboat teens are "much higher" than state averages, citing DUI and drug-related arrest rates.

At 7:30 a.m. Friday, Routt County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested a Steamboat Springs High School senior on suspicion of driving under the influence, careless driving and possessing an open container of alcohol.

Risky behavior is almost a given for local teens. Only 10 percent of high school students, and 3 percent of seniors, said they avoid doing things that are dangerous. Just 22 percent of students, about one in five, said they think it is important not to be sexually active and not to use drugs or alcohol.

Ann Sims, director of curriculum and instruction for the school district, said those numbers could be an example of "social norming," or teens answering surveys according to exaggerated perceptions rather than objective truths.

"Sometimes kids' perceptions are incorrect," Sims said this week. "A lot of times, the reality is better."

Moving forward

Superintendent Donna How--ell said a similar assets survey could be given to students at Steamboat Springs Middle School, possibly next year.

"This year's survey asked some pointed questions that (middle school) parents objected to, so we pulled back," Howell said, referring to questions about sexual activity by teens. "But you do also want to be looking at the responses of middle school students. I think I'm going to strongly suggest it -- I would hope that we administer a survey at the middle school."

Sims said Hayden and South Routt schools are "strongly encouraged" to conduct a survey, which she said cost the Steamboat school district about $3,000.

Many of the survey results are very positive. More than 60 percent of Steamboat students demonstrated assets including integrity, academic motivation, leadership roles in activities and a sense of purpose in their lives.

Visnack said focusing on developing assets will be crucial in the days ahead.

"Our ultimate goal would be to have all the different sectors of the community embrace this approach," she said. "But we know that's going to take a long time."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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