News mixed in drug survey

Students smoking, drinking less, using Ecstasy, speed more

`A growing problem'

October 02, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County youths apparently are smoking fewer cigarettes, chewing less tobacco and drinking less beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages than they were three years ago.

But they're popping far more Ecstasy and speed, using more inhalants and, in some cases, smoking more marijuana and ingesting more cocaine or PCP.

The news, contained in a survey released last week by the Maryland Department of Education, is worrisome to Howard County educators, parents, police and justice officials.

"I'm encouraged to see some of the drugs are down, but they're still not where they ought to be," school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt said.

The Maryland Adolescent Survey was given to more than 34,500 students in 298 schools across the state in April. Eighty percent responded.

It asked schoolchildren about their use of such substances as cigarettes, alcohol, LSD, marijuana, crack, Ritalin and steroids, and about their knowledge of those drugs, the availability of the drugs and the children's views on safety in their schools.

The last such survey was conducted in 1998.

Since then, the new survey found, cigarette smoking in Howard County has dropped in grades six, eight, 10 and 12, and sixth-, eighth- and 10th-graders are drinking less beer and chewing less tobacco.

Similar decreases were found in the use of hard liquor and Ritalin. Tenth- and 12th-graders said they were smoking less marijuana. Eighth- and 10th-graders reported smoking less crack.

"It does seem to be that, overall, where there were increases, it was at sixth and 12th, and [at] eighth and 10th, there were reductions," said Dulcy Sullivan of the Howard County School system's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Department. "It is up and down. It's really hard to see trends."

The state tends to be concerned with the overall trends that the survey reveals and with the percentages of respondents who say they have used substances in the previous 30 days.

Although the use of such substances as beer, wine and tobacco is down, the use of harder drugs such as PCP, speed and methamphetamines is up.

Of particular concern is the rise in Ecstasy use, especially among seniors. The percentage of 12th-graders who said they had used Ecstasy in the previous 12 months more than doubled, from 4.8 percent to 11.6 percent. The proportion of seniors who said they had used the drug in the previous 30 days almost doubled, from 2.9 percent to 5.3 percent.

The number of eighth- and 10th-graders who said they had used Ecstasy in the previous 12 months, the previous 30 days or ever also increased.

"This is not just `kids will be kids,'" said board Vice Chairwoman Sandra H. French. "These are a much more serious variety of drugs."

State educators said many children don't perceive Ecstasy - a pill that is a stimulant-hallucinogen mix - as dangerous. Some children call it the "hug drug" because it stirs feelings of love and togetherness, said Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, a "gee, isn't everything wonderful?" kind of feeling.

"I'm very concerned about Ecstasy use," said McLendon, co-chairman of the county Not My Kid parent outreach and awareness program. "That's been a real emerging drug over the last few years."

School board members also said they were concerned about the survey's youngest participants, sixth-graders. In that group, the number who said they had used inhalants within the previous 30 days was almost triple the number in 1998.

"This is one report where I don't want Howard County kids above the state average, and it bothers me that we are," French said. "It's not on everything. But if you look at inhalants, I think we have a growing problem."

Schools include drug education in health classes and train counselors to be aware of warning signs that a child is using drugs. Strict policies condemn the use, possession or distribution of controlled substances in schools.

But since the last Maryland Adolescent survey was released in 1998, suspensions for substance-related offenses have increased from 14 to 27 in middle schools and from 118 to 239 in high schools.

"In schools, we do what we can, but we can't do it in isolation," Sullivan said. "We have to have buy-in from the other stakeholders. It has to be a community approach."

Sgt. Dave Francis of the Howard County Police Department's SAFE program, which is similar to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, said he had not had time to review the latest figures and could not comment.

Board members said that although student drug use is a community issue, parents should take the most responsibility for what their children do.

French recalled a troubling conversation she had about marijuana with another parent when one of French's sons was in high school.

"She said, `Well, it's not [as] serious as the other things,'" French said of the other woman.

"Parents don't realize that this affects the child's ability to learn. If your kid is coming to school with a brain that is lightheaded, unfocused, it has a residual effect."

Schuchardt agreed, saying, "I think that the parents need to be the role models for the kids. What do they tell the students about [drugs and alcohol]? And what do they do to try to instill in them that these things are wrong?"

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