By Amanda Wyatt
Six months after newly-released statistics on alcohol and drug use among Sag Harbor students sparked major controversy, over 50 concerned community members gathered at Pierson Middle/High School last Thursday for the first formal presentation of the data.
During the event, representatives from the Sag Harbor Coalition — a drug and alcohol prevention group — revealed the results of the 2010 Suffolk County Youth Development Survey. The 200-plus-question survey asked 339 seventh through 12th graders about a variety of topics, particularly their use of drugs and alcohol.
While Pamela Mizzi, director of prevention for the Suffolk County Prevention Resource Center, said the survey was “validated” and “reliable,” she cautioned that it was simply one measure of substance use.
“Just keep in mind this is one picture in one day, it’s sort of a snap shot, slice of life,” she said.
The survey found that alcohol was the substance of choice for Sag Harbor students, and that they were more likely to drink than their peers across Suffolk County.
For example, Mizzi noted that among Pierson seniors the survey said, “75 percent of the kids used alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to the county norm of just over half.”
Pierson students also had higher rates of binge drinking, which is consuming more than five drinks in a row in one sitting. For instance, 41 percent of juniors and seniors said they had binged in the past two weeks of the survey, compared to 34 percent of the same age group across Suffolk County.
The incidence of marijuana use, however, was mixed. For example, no eighth graders reported using marijuana that month, compared to 1.6 percent in the county. At the same time, 29.3 percent of Pierson seniors said they used marijuana, compared to 26.5 percent in the county.
The use of prescription painkillers was also mixed. For example, 12.5 percent of Pierson sophomores reported using painkillers, compared to 3.3 percent of sophomores across the county. However, Pierson ninth, 11th and 12th graders reported not using painkillers as much as their Suffolk County peers.
As Kym Laube, executive director of the Westhampton-based prevention group, HUGS, Inc., noted, the culture of teen drinking and drug use has changed since most parents were in school — particularly due to the Internet. Between ordering fake IDs on the Internet and posting photos of their friends binge drinking on social media sites, Laube said, “It’s a whole different ball game from what we had.”
“We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge,” she added. “So in this community, nothing will change about substance abuse and about underage drinking unless we begin to talk about it. And I applaud your school because they’ve been talking about it.”
After the meeting, some parents remained in their seats, talking amongst themselves. Julia Hubbard and Summer Louchheim, both of whom have children in the district, were among those surprised and concerned by what they had heard in the presentation.
“My son is only in fifth grade, but as my friend, Julia, said, you can never start too young thinking about these things,” Louchheim said. “Based on those facts, they’re starting younger and younger.”
Some students also attended the presentation, including Ben Alvarez, a Pierson freshman who remembered taking the survey a few years ago.
“A couple of my friends, they just wrote down that they take drugs or were in a gang, because that was one of the questions,” he admitted. “Some of the kids did do it just for giggles, but I took it seriously.”
Alvarez suggested taking another survey to update the results, and also recommended focusing more on marijuana use during future presentations. In his view, upperclassmen are more likely to drink, while students in younger grades tend to use marijuana because it is more readily available.
“At parties, it’s just there and you can just take a puff. Mostly the older kids will sell it to the younger kids, and I guess they think it’s cool,” he said.
Drs. Lisa Scheffer and John Oppenheimer, who co-chair the coalition, also weighed in on the presentation.
“There was a lot of information in there that was somewhat concerning and scary but I think the response from everybody who attended was positive, and everybody wants to take a proactive stance and do something about it,” said Dr. Scheffer.
And when asked about the coalition’s next steps, Dr. Oppenheimer said: “Part of the challenge going forward is tailoring a program to our particular community.”
Brainstorming programs for Sag Harbor will be among the items for discussion at the next meeting of the coalition, which will be held on February 12 at 6 p.m. in the Pierson Middle High School library.