School Committee shares concerns over youth-risk data

Data gathered from the school district regarding youth-risk behavior revealed some concerning numbers in regard to alcohol and drug use among the town’s youth, as well as other mental-health concerns. 

The data was gathered from a schoolwide assessment done at the High School (ages 14-18) in October 2022, in which 627 students were surveyed. Supplemental questions were asked via an anonymous Google form, which had 486 responses. 

Marblehead Public Schools Social Worker Gina Hart presented the data at a School Committee meeting on June 1. Particularly concerning for School Committee Chair Sarah Fox was the age of first use of alcohol and nicotine. 8.6 percent of students surveyed said that they first used alcohol at the age of 12 or younger, and 9.1 percent said they first used alcohol at 13. The most common responses were age 14, at 27.4 percent, and age 15, at 29 percent. 

Only 1.1 percent of students reported first using alcohol at the age of 18. 

Fox said that the numbers are “astronomically troubling” when adding up the percentages of students using alcohol for the first time between ages 12 and under, 13, and 14, and asked for Superintendent John Buckey and school leadership to look into ways to prevent use among children.

“The idea that fifth-graders and sixth-graders are using alcohol, we’re not getting these kids,” she said. “We need to get these kids.”

Another troubling statistic was the 26.3 percent of students who said they had been in a car with someone else who had been drinking and driving, which was up from 21.9 percent in 2021. 

Despite those concerns, 40.5 percent of students surveyed said that they had used alcohol in their lifetime, which was a 0.5 percent decrease from 2021. Cannabis use also dropped from 23 percent in 2021 to 20.1 percent in 2022. Nicotine use, however, increased significantly from 19 percent to 34 percent.

In an interview, Hart said that getting these numbers out to the public will dismiss the notion that every teenager is actively drinking alcohol or smoking, as the data shows that the number of Marblehead students that have used or are using substances is around the state average.

“There’s a misconception about everyone is using substances,” she said. “When you are really doing the work and are getting into it and looking at how it compares to state data, I believe the data we are seeing is very accurate because it compares pretty closely to state data.”

The real concern lies within the age of first use and the number of students getting in cars with people who have been drinking. 

Hart said that while abolishing teenage substance use for good is impractical, harm reduction, which entails using methods and strategies to teach kids how to minimize harm when using substances, is critical to helping them make good decisions.

“One of the bigger risk factors is the age of first use. How can we help students delay their use? If they’re going to choose to use, they’re going to be much better off if they wait till their brain is more developed. So, how can we come up with strategies for having them wait a little longer?” Hart said.

Despite the number of students who said they have used alcohol or nicotine at any point in their lifetime, 89.9 percent answered “yes” when asked if their parents or guardian would be upset or give them a punishment if they knew they were using alcohol or marijuana on a regular basis. 

School Committee member Sarah Gold, who is a licensed mental health counselor, said in an interview that the rising mental health crisis could be playing a significant factor in drug and alcohol use among adolescents. 

“I do think there’s a correlation there,” said Gold. “We’ve seen for a very long time drugs and alcohol be the self medication for people with mental health issues.” 

Gold added that there is the possibility of childhood trauma playing a role in adolescents using substances at an earlier age, which can lead to additional trauma if the substances are used in a way that is abusive. 

Though there was concern at the meeting, Fox commended Buckey and Hart for the ongoing work regarding drug and alcohol awareness and programming for students. Hart said that despite some of the data, the district is in a good spot and is continuing to do what it can to decrease the number of students using substances.

“We’re just really fortunate to work in a district that has so much support for social-emotional and substance use and mental health programming,” she said. “We’re in a great place to start but of course, we need to always keep doing more.”