Younger children trying drugs

State survey finds more experimentation before high school

March 26, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Even though drug and alcohol use among Howard County middle and high school youths has dropped the past two years, a state report released last week said more children are trying drugs and alcohol before they reach high school.

The number of Howard eighth-graders participating in the 1998 Maryland Adolescent Survey who said they had used such substances as cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, beer, crack and other forms of cocaine at least once is higher than in 1996, the year of the previous survey.

For example, 8.5 percent of county eighth-graders said yes when asked in 1998 if they had "ever used" crack. That's up from 2.9 percent in 1996.

And 44.8 percent of eighth-graders said yes in 1998 to the same question about alcohol, while 41.3 percent said the same in 1996.

Safe and Drug Free Schools specialist Milt McKenna, who oversees the survey at the state level, said Howard parents and residents should be concerned about the increase.

"I would be alarmed," McKenna said. "That's more than just some kids exaggerating, I would guess."

McKenna said the state generally tends to be more concerned with overall trends that the survey reveals and the percentages of respondents who say they have used substances in the past 30 days. That number indicates current users, or addicts, McKenna said.

"But certainly, if we see an upswing in the ["ever used" category], we may be alerted to [the fact] that we may have more kids trying drugs," he said.

"I would say to [Howard County], `Here's what the kids are telling us in your community, and now it's up to you to do something about it.' That's the beauty of doing this survey every two years, to give this kind of information."

County school district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the apparent increase in eighth-grade drug and alcohol use is upsetting.

"I think we're making some headway in some areas," Caplan said, noting that, in general, substance abuse in the county is down. "But it shows we've got to stay vigilant."

Caplan said peer pressure increases dramatically in middle school, which might be one reason for the increase.

That's reason for parents to get more involved in their children's lives earlier, said county State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon.

"Even though parents may be thinking, `That's an issue we can deal with later,' this data is saying, `This is something we need to deal with right now.' Even elementary school parents need to focus and start having discussions that are age-appropriate," she said. McLendon is co-chairman of the county Not My Kid parent outreach and awareness program.

Howard school board member Stephen C. Bounds, the other co-chairman of the Not My Kid program, said the overall decline in drug and alcohol use shows that parental involvement is a key factor in getting youths to say "no" to drugs and alcohol.

"The credit goes to the Howard County parents who have taken up the cause to be more involved in their children's lives," Bounds said. "And as we suspected, parent involvement will make all the difference in the world in reducing risk-taking behavior."

School and community officials agree that the overall numbers seem encouraging.

In the 1996 sampling of sixth-, eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders, 56.5 percent of Howard County high school seniors admitted using some form of alcohol in a 30-day period, and 32 percent said they had used drugs in that time frame.

In 1998, the most recent survey reports, 44.5 percent of county high school seniors said they had consumed alcohol in the 30 days before taking the survey, and 22.4 percent said they had used drugs during that time.

Statewide, those percentages also were down.

The survey was given to almost 37,000 students in 323 schools across the state in 1998, with more than 60 percent responding. It asked students about their use of such drugs as cigarettes, alcohol, LSD, marijuana, crack, Ritalin and steroids.

Caplan said it was important to note that though the survey was given to students in schools, the results don't represent in-school drug and alcohol use.

"The surveys are conducted in the schools because that's where the kids are, that's where they can reach them," Caplan said. "It reflects drug use in the community."

In fact, Caplan said, if you compare the results of the survey to the number of school suspensions for drug- and alcohol-related offenses in 1998, it is evident that "the majority of the drug use is taking place outside of schools."

During the 1997-1998 academic year, when 11,000 high school students and 9,300 middle school children were enrolled in county public schools, there were 118 substance-related suspensions in high schools and 14 in middle schools.

McKenna said it is common knowledge that children "seldom" use drugs at school.

"When kids first experiment with drugs, where do you think they do it? At school? No, they do it at home," McKenna said.

Caplan said anti-drug programs in the schools might be helping the decline in the number of substance abusers.

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