Risky business Reversing 'cluster' of health risks among teens begins at home.

November 20, 1995

REGARDLESS OF whether Howard compares favorably with other area counties when it comes to the behavior of its youth, any level of risky behavior involving drugs, alcohol or sex is cause for alarm. The county's health department should be commended for trying to sound the alarm about these problems despite a state-issued report that gave the county high marks on the general health of its residents, including a relatively low incidence of AIDS and teen-age pregnancy.

In data it plans to release to the school board and other sources in the coming months, the health department reports what it calls a "clustering" of risky behavior, including a higher than average use of marijuana among teen-agers. In addition, more than half of all 12th graders reported using alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey being conducted, and 31 percent smoked cigarettes during that period. While teen-age pregnancy is below the statewide average in Howard, the number is deceiving since two out of three teen-aged pregnancies in the county end in abortion as opposed to one out of three statewide.

Taken separately, the statistics are bad enough. But it is the clustering, the practice among teen-agers to combine risky behaviors, that makes the data most alarming.

Aside from warning the public, the unanswered question is what can be done. One of the first lines of defense for the health department is the school board, but it would be tapping a dry well at this juncture. Not only would finances prohibit a massive effort to curb risky behavior, much of that work is already being done in the classroom. Providing more after-school activities costs money that the school system doesn't have.

School board member Stephen Bounds had it right when he said, "Parents are going to have wake up [and] get their priorities straight." Most modern parents, even those in two-parent households, generally spend most of their day on the job, leaving children unsupervised for hours. Some parents are simply negligent. Others fall victim to the timeless pressure from young adults who want independence before they are old enough to handle it. Government can only do so much to reverse this problem. The solution begins at home.

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