In 11 years, the percentage of high school seniors who report using alcohol, tobacco and marijuana has dropped significantly in Warren County.
From 2005 to 2016, the percentage of seniors who self-reported using alcohol in a 12-month period prior to taking a drug survey dropped from 38.9 percent to 9.9 percent. Marijuana use for the same age group and time period dropped from 30.7 percent to 19.8 percent. Tobacco use dropped from 43.8 percent to 14.7 percent.
“I think much of this is due to creation of a combined community focus with an emphasis on beginning the prevention process at the elementary grade level,” said Eric Gregory, executive director of The Save Our Kids Coalition, the group that conducts drug use surveys of city and county school children. “Our schools have been phenomenal in making substance abuse prevention a focus, especially at the elementary level.”
The team approach ultimately leads to healthier kids when the community prevents unhealthy behaviors rather than having to treat them later in adulthood.
“When we all work together, not in silos, we can help kids and help them be more successful and live a healthier life and be safe,” Bowling Green Independent Schools Superintendent Gary Fields said.
“It’s exciting for our community,” Fields said of the drop in alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use. “If you look around the state and the nation, there’s some tough things going on with opioid abuse.
“It starts early,” he said of prevention.
When The Save Our Kids Coalition began in 2004, the coalition set out with a goal of using a data-driven, scientific approach to drug prevention.
“While we’ve had to address specific needs with substances when they arise – synthetic marijuana, prescription drugs, et cetera – we have maintained a focus on concentrating on addressing the underage drinking issue. Very rarely do you see someone with a needle in their arm that did not begin by taking that first drink years before,” Gregory said. “Prior to our existence, no one was really digging through the data.”
In digging through that information, the coalition was able to determine that more kids begin using alcohol sooner than originally thought.
“We always thought the biggest transition occurred between middle school and high school,” Gregory said. “What we found was the biggest increase occurred between elementary school and middle school.
The coalition learned in 2005 that the use of alcohol at least once during a 12-month period tripled for children between the sixth and seventh grades. Keeping the focus on the first-use type of drugs, such as alcohol, and attacking the issue early has the most lasting effect, he said.
“If you want to prevent it, prevention really needs to start in the fourth- and fifth-grade age range,” Gregory said.
Todd Hazel, director of student services for Warren County Public Schools, agreed that early intervention is key.
“I think the younger it starts with education, the better,” Hazel said. “We start in our elementary schools. The earlier you catch them, the better chance you have of deterring drugs and alcohol.”
In addition to curriculum provided by The Save Our Kids Coalition, the district’s guidance counselors work with children daily on drug and alcohol prevention along with other issues such as bullying, social skills and harassment.
“When you address all those things as a group I think those things play a factor in addressing drugs and alcohol,” Hazel said. The district also has five mental health clinicians working daily in the schools.
A combination of curriculum, public policy, environmental policy and school policy over the last decade have contributed to the drop in usage, Gregory said.
“Our mindset was, ‘Let’s attack this. Let’s grab them early and try to raise them in a drug-free environment,’ ” he said. “Another risk factor in school use is peer influence or the perception of peer influence. A perception of peers using is almost as powerful as actual knowledge of peer use.”
Together with both school districts here, the coalition launched a campaign to show kids the disparity between thinking that a large percentage of their friends drink and the reality of how many actually do drink.
“We corrected that quickly, and we dropped the number of kids reporting use. It became kind of a new culture,” Gregory said.
Misti Carrigan, coordinator of Bowling Green High School Youth Services, agrees that peer-use perception is a powerful influence on children.
“At the high school level, we look at combating social norms,” Carrigan said. “Perceptions are typically based on what students’ peer groups are involved in. If a student finds himself in a peer group who uses substances of any kind, that student might perceive that all high school students are using. But in reality, those students are in the minority as the majority of students are not using.
“So at BGHS Youth Services we look at breaking down those social norms. We work with (Save Our Kids) and (Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Policy) in collaborative efforts.
“Prevention is key so we look to address this topic at the elementary and junior high levels as well,” Carrigan said. “It is always important to keep parents involved and aware of the youth trends. Parents are constantly trying to keep up with the changing times. Once a student gets to the high school level, needs are addressed and there are many resources in place to address student use which also includes treatment.”
Public policy initiatives that affected use include passing clean air ordinances that ban smoking in public places open to children.
For today’s children growing up in Bowling Green, they will not encounter smoking inside local shopping centers or restaurants.
“Smoking is no longer the cultural norm,” Gregory said. “Non-smoking is the cultural norm. I think that policy is one of the greatest things.”
Gregory would like to see public policy that imposes civil liability on adults who allow minors to throw parties during which alcohol is served, also called social hosting.
“Where a smoke-free ordinance is going to save lives, I think a social host ordinance will do more to save the quality of lives of our young people. What I’m talking about there are girls getting raped at parties … the unwanted sexual activity, the fights, being plastered all over social media. It seems like alcohol-assisted rapes are on the rise. It’s preventing kids from making decisions they are going to regret for the rest of their lives or preventing them from becoming victims. …
“I think social host will help reduce the consequence of these parties,” he said. “We live in a pretty alcohol-heavy community.”
Yet, there are almost 25 percent fewer high school seniors who reported drinking in the last 12 months than seniors surveyed 10 to 11 years ago.
“We’ve done our little part. The schools have done their part, law enforcement has done their part. We’re proud of the numbers, that’s for sure. At the end of the day, that’s what matters,” Gregory said.
Source: Daily News