At Risk: Health Council Assesses Trends in Teen Behavior

By IAN FEIN

Have you ever tried smoking a cigarette, even one or two puffs? On an average school day, how many hours do you watch TV? During the past seven days, how many times did you eat green salad?

These are the types of questions that Vineyard students in sixth through twelfth grade will be asked in an anonymous youth risk behavior survey, which will be conducted next month for the first time in three years.

Results should give the Island community - and especially parents and school leaders - a solid understanding of the healthy and not so healthy behavior of Vineyard youth.

Similar teen risk surveys were taken in Island schools in 2000 and in 2002 but were suspended when money from a state grant funding the surveys dried up.

This year, the youth task force of the Dukes County Health Council picked up the cause and rallied schools and other nonprofit organizations for money.

"We want to find out whether the Vineyard is being responsive to kids, or are there trends we need to look harder at," said task force member Michael Joyce Sr., longtime Edgartown School guidance counselor who retired in 2001. "Let's see where we stand."

Results from the earlier studies alarmed school officials and some members of the community. According to the survey, Island high school students partook in binge drinking, driving drunk, and smoking marijuana at rates significantly higher than other students across the state.

Vineyard high school students also reported having sex about as much as their peers statewide, but results showed they used condoms at a much higher rate.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said she was looking forward to obtaining more recent data, to see how the health trends have changed over the last few years.

"I'm pleased about continuing this longitudinal study, because one or two snapshots don't really help that much," she said. "You really need to see progression over time of kids' uses and abuses and at-risk behavior."

The 2000 and 2002 surveys indicated that cigarette smoking had decreased among Island youth, but students in the sixth through eighth grade reported increased sexual activity and alcohol and drug use over the same period.

The survey questions are similar to ones posed to teenagers across the state in a survey of high schools randomly selected by the state department of education.

The statewide data allows the Vineyard to compare the at-risk behavior of its youth to trends across the commonwealth. Behavior surveys are not administered statewide to students in the sixth through eighth grade.

Mrs. Regan emphasized that this year's survey will also try to evaluate positive health trends of Vineyard teens.

"If 47 per cent of kids are drinking in ninth and tenth grades, then we want to know what the other 53 per cent of kids that aren't drinking are doing with their time," she said. "We want to focus on the positive too, because otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

School officials will also see an outside organization taking charge of the behavior survey this year.

"Drug and abuse issues are community-wide issues. They're not just school-wide," said interim superintendent of Vineyard schools Paul Dulac. "The more of us that work on it the better."

Schools are shouldering some of the cost, however. Administrators agreed to support and administer the survey - with each of the five Island school districts donating $725 to the effort. The remainder of the estimated $8,900 cost to print the survey and compile the results will come from Martha's Vineyard Community Services and private foundations.

"When we're done with all this, the task force in effect will be reporting back to the community at large," Mr. Joyce said. "We see it as our job to get the data, present it to the public and all the agencies that deal with youth. Schools are obviously a major and vital part of that, but they may not be the most important to talk to at first."

The results will also allow other Island organizations to apply for grants aimed at youth. Data from the past surveys helped the schools secure a $950,000 federal grant that allowed the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard to provide after-school programs for Island children and the establishment of a teen center in Oak Bluffs.

Although the task force organized this year's survey, it will be administered through the schools, including the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.

Regional high school guidance counselor Michael McCarthy said the students will likely take the test during the second week of April. Mr. Joyce said he did not know the turnaround as to when results will be available, though past study results were ready within a few months.

The task force hopes to put together a public presentation of the results, and possibly organize a series of forums much like the monthly health care forums currently being held.

"The risk survey could be a supplement to a bigger look at health issues for our Island youth - such as dental care and health services," Mr. Joyce said. "What's it like out there for kids ages 12 to 20? Are there gaps or kids not being served? We hope it will be part of bigger examination of the health of our youth."