Erica McNamara, Director of the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse, presented a portion of the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey to the school committee at its July 31 meeting. The survey is administered to students at Reading Memorial High School and both middle schools every other year to the school committee. Student participation in the survey is voluntary, and Reading has been a part of the program since 2005. High school students are asked a battery of 123 questions about their attitudes and participation in various behaviors such as tobacco and drug usage, sexual activity, and suicide. McNamara pointed out that students answer the questions as honestly as adults are prone to and that there are internal reliability checks included in the survey to help verify the answers given. The results shared came from 1,009 valid surveys from RMHS, an 80% response rate – 20% higher than national response rates.
The presentation started with what are described as protective factors. The percentage of students who reported that they had one trusted adult with whom they could talk in school is on the rise over the ten years of data. This percentage was even higher when asked about trusted adults in the community. However, only 27% of students reported getting the recommended eight to ten hours of sleep each night. Sixteen percent of Reading high school students reported doing non-suicidal self harm, while seven percent made a suicide attempt, about half of those required medical attention.
Tobacco use is down amongst high school students, with only eight percent reporting that they are current smokers; thirteen percent having tried smoking at some time in their lives. This news is balanced by the 27% who currently use nicotine vaping products. This is concerning as the vaping products provide a higher concentration of nicotine than cigarettes, making addiction more likely. Studies have shown that use of nicotine increases the likelihood of other substance abuse in the future.
Alcohol usage among Reading’s high schoolers is decreasing. Thirty-six percent reported drinking in the last 30 days, compared with forty-five percent ten years ago. “The longer we can keep adolescent brains alcohol free, the better they develop.” McNamara commented. When asked about why Reading’s numbers are higher than the state averages from two years ago McNamara indicated that suburban communities tend to have higher drinking rates than do urban communities and that Reading’s numbers are similar to surrounding communities.
The use of marijuana and other drugs has remained steady over the years of the study, Misuse of prescription drugs is low but concerning, with lifetime usage reported at about three percent. School committee member, Nick Boivin, asked about opioid use. McNamara explained that opioids are not singled out in the survey, because the students do not know which substances are and which are not opioids, so the answers would be meaningless. She further commented that opioids are included in the portions of the survey involving the misuse of prescription drugs.
When asked how parents and peers feel about drug use, both reported high rates of suspected disapproval, though the rates for marijuana disapproval are decreasing, likely due to recent votes in the state regarding the legality of the substance.
Surveys with fewer questions were also conducted at the middle schools. Ninety-one percent of middle school students reported that they have trusted adults in the community or school that they could talk to. This good news is attributed to the new team teaching model being employed in both Reading middle schools. Alcohol and marijuana are the substances that have the highest reported usage amongst middles school students with prescription drug being misused by around 1-2% of reporting students. Only 55% of Reading middle school students reported thinking that marijuana use could be harmful, 43% reported thinking that alcohol use could be harmful. Part two of the report, containing more in-depth analysis will be delivered later this fall.
The school committee also met the police department’s new school resource officer, Brian Lewis and approved the high school handbook for the coming school year. While the committee had a discussion about the addition of a new staff position on its agenda, it was delayed until the next meeting to allow for the full committee to be present. school committee member, Linda Snow Dockser was unavailable for this meeting. The committee adjourned to executive session at 9:10.