Schools target drug use


Staff writer

Between grades six and 12, a student’s probability of abusing harmful substances increases significantly, according to a recent survey.

Federal Way Public Schools, seeming to put into practice the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, is focusing much of its efforts on preventing students from getting involved in drugs, alcohol or tobacco, rather than trying to pull them out after they’ve been sucked in.

A state survey measured Washington students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades and found that from one level to the next, significantly more students were abusing harmful substances.

The state numbers are fairly representative of Federal Way, said Pat Smithson, school district health coordinator.

For tobacco use in a 30-day period, 2.2 percent of sixth-graders smoked, 9.2 percent of eighth-graders smoked, 15 percent of 10th-graders smoked and 22.7 percent of 12th-graders smoked –– a tenfold increase in six years.

For alcohol use in a 30-day period, 3.8 percent of sixth-graders drank. The percentages rose to 17.8 percent among eighth-graders, 29.3 percent in 10th grad and 42.8 percent in 12th. That’s a more than tenfold increase in six years.

For marijuana or hashish use over a 30-day period, 1.3 percent of sixth-graders used those drugs, compared to 10.4 percent of eighth-graders, 18.3 percent of 10th-graders and 24.7 percent of 12th-graders used.

The correlation between increased use along with age has to do with the greater independence of youth. Once students turn 16, they begin driving and are left more to do what they want and have less supervision, Smithson said.

“There is no inherent desire” to abuse harmful substances, Smithson said. “But there is so much peer pressure if their friends are using or if they are with someone who is experimenting. And some kids live in households where parents are using.

“Some get hooked and don’t know how to get off. Others are happy doing it, whether it’s because of the feeling it gives them or the acceptance.”

Smithson said there is help for kids who want to get away from harmful substances. The best person to begin talking to is a school counselor who can begin the process of getting students and parents in touch with resources, she said.

However, the schools are focusing the bulk of their efforts in prevention.

“The more knowledge you give fifth and sixth-graders and middle-schoolers the more likely it is you can prevent experimentation,” Smithson said.

In fact, prevention is becoming recognized as a science, said Michele Haymond, prevention resource coordinator for the Puget Sound Education Service District.

When attempting to prevent harmful behaviors, experts look at factors that make a child more likely to fall into such behaviors (called risk factors) and factors that are likely to help a child stay out of such behaviors (protective factors). Examples of risk factors include a history of academic underachievement, a household in which a parent smokes, or a bad neighborhood. Examples of protective factors are an absence of friends who smoke or a caring parent at home.

Haymond is working in Illahee Junior High School in the Federal Way district. She typically does a three-year project in a school. The first year, she assesses a school’s problems and needs. In year two, she implements programs to address the school’s goals, such as decreasing the number of rule infractions by students or increasing parent involvement. In year three, programs continue and their success is assessed.

One challenge such efforts always face is funding; another is parent involvement, according to Haymond.

Another expert said that one barrier between greater parent involvement in such programs is that parents often don’t realize the importance of their role.

“Children want parents to create boundaries to show they care,” said Trise Moore, the Federal Way district’s advocate for family/school partnerships. “Parents can say to their kids, ‘I want to know where you’re going and what you’re doing.’”

According to the health survey, dramatic increases in unhealthy behaviors take place in eighth grade.

Around eighth grade is when parental involvement starts to decrease, Moore said.

“Eighth graders are crying out for parental involvement,” she said.

Staff writer Kenny Ching: 925-5565

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