Survey aims at problems in early years

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

A survey of ninth-grade students in Missouri given during the 1999-2000 school year revealed some alarming trends.

Thirty percent of the ninth-graders responding to the survey had been in a car driven by someone who had been drinking. Two-thirds had consumed more than a few sips of alcohol at a time. Nearly a third had tried marijuana. And 20 percent had been offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property.

Seventeen percent contemplated suicide in the past year. And 60 percent had at least taken a couple drags from a cigarette.

Most adults, if asked to guess, would probably put those numbers a lot lower. Granted, some communities probably have lower numbers than others, but the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers the survey, didn't release the 1999-2000 survey by school district.

Ninth-graders around the state, including in the Cape Girardeau School District, recently took the surveys again. The questionnaires are distributed every two years. The state's survey coordinator said ninth grade tends to be the best time to get an accurate read on what students are doing in their personal lives.

It would be good news if this year's survey showed the number of those who try smoking, alcohol and other drugs is lower, but there is much more we can do as parents and as a community.

Jim Watkins, coordinator of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program for Cape Girardeau, said students in grades eight and 10 are going to be asked to participate in an additional survey developed and administered by Southeast Missouri State University. It is much like the DESE survey in content, but the information will, of course, be specific to the local school district. And with that information in hand, district leaders will be in a position to develop programs to target various sectors of the student population that need help.

It's encouraging that Watkins already has a strategy. In the next few months, a 22-person advisory committee will discuss the results. They've already discussed the potential benefits of having older students counsel younger students on the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the importance of avoiding them.

But as much as that might work, the survey already illustrates that ninth grade is too late to talk to children about smoking and drugs. Responsible parents will act immediately to educate their children, survey or no survey.

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