The results are in, and they confirm what some had already suspected: the rates of alcohol and drug use among Sag Harbor students are higher than average.
According to recently released data from the 2010-2011 Suffolk County Youth Development Survey (YDS), students at Pierson Middle/High School tend to drink, smoke and take drugs more than most students in Suffolk County.
The YDS survey was part of a larger effort by the New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to look at substance use and other “problem behaviors” — gambling, delinquency, violence and handguns — among seventh through 12th graders. The 200-question survey also measured factors that help to prevent or contribute to these behaviors.
The survey included a total of 16,119 students in 13 Suffolk County school districts. Sag Harbor and Westhampton were the only districts on the East End that participated.
However, only 339 Pierson students were surveyed.
“Sag Harbor is a small school district, and differences are more profound with smaller [sample sizes],” said Pamela Mizzi, director of prevention at the Suffolk County Prevention Resource Center.
Mizzi noted that the survey essentially measures student perception of drug and alcohol use.
“[It shows] the children’s understanding of their risk and protective factors, and we rely on their honesty on the questions about their use,” she said.
According to one Pierson parent, who wished her name not be published in the newspaper, some students did not provide honest answers while taking the survey, escalating their drug and alcohol use on paper far beyond reality.
Former school board president Mary Anne Miller originally suggested the survey. While at a school board convention several years ago, she met members of the PRC who were conducting a prevention workshop, and she asked them for advice.
“They told me, ‘You can’t attack a problem unless you know what your problems are. Every community has different challenges, so you need data’,” Miller recalled. “They were the ones who encouraged me to go back to the school and ask them to participate in the OASAS survey.”
The survey confirmed that alcohol was undoubtedly the Sag Harbor School District’s main challenge. Roughly 92 percent of Pierson juniors and seniors reported using alcohol in their lifetime, compared to 77 percent of the same age group in Suffolk County. However, about 65 percent of the school’s 11th and 12th graders reported drinking in a 30 day period before taking the survey, and 41 percent said they had engaged in binge drinking.
While about 53 percent of freshmen and sophomores in the county reported using alcohol, the statistic was 67 percent for Pierson. In the 30-day assessment, 32 percent of the school’s ninth and tenth graders said they had consumed alcohol, and 22.4 percent reporting they had binged.
In the 30 day assessment, about 8 percent of Pierson seventh and eighth graders said they had consumed alcohol, and 4.6 percent reported binge drinking. Roughly 28 percent had used alcohol in their lifetime, compared to the county average of 21 percent.
Almost 70 percent of Pierson juniors and seniors and roughly 37 percent of freshmen and sophomores reported that they drank at someone else’s home. However, it was more common for seventh and eighth graders to drink at home, either with or without parental permission.
The survey also measured the lifetime use of “any illicit drug,” which included all substances except for alcohol and tobacco. Just under a quarter of Pierson seventh and eighth graders said they had used illicit drugs, compared to the county average of about 14 percent.
Slightly less than 40 percent of Pierson freshmen and sophomores said they had taken illicit drugs, compared to the county average of 27 percent. However, some 65 percent of Pierson juniors and seniors reported using illicit drugs, compared to the county average of 46 percent.
Roughly 54 percent of Pierson juniors and seniors said they used marijuana in their lifetime, compared to 39 percent in Suffolk County. About 25 percent of freshmen and sophomores said they had used marijuana, which was higher than the county average of 16 percent. However, marijuana use among seventh and eighth graders was about two percent, which was slightly lower than the county average.
Approximately 46 percent of Pierson juniors and seniors reported they had smoked cigarettes, compared to the county average of roughly 25 percent. Among the school’s freshmen and sophomores, it was about 23 percent, or 10 points higher than the county average. While nine percent of Pierson seventh and eighth graders said they had smoked cigarettes in their lifetime, the county average was 4 percent.
The use of prescription drugs, inhalants, chewing tobacco and over-the-counter medications was also reported in somewhat smaller numbers. A very low percentage of kids reported trying cocaine and heroin.
Pierson also scored high on a number of risk factors for drug and alcohol use, including “low neighborhood attachment.” Studies have shown that students who feel connected to their neighborhoods tend to engage less in drinking and substance use. However, Miller noted that in a seasonal community like Sag Harbor, children don’t always know their neighbors.
The survey also reported that some students thought their parents’ attitudes were somewhat “favorable” to substance use. For this reason, district superintendent Dr. John Gratto felt that parents needed to get more involved in combating substance use.
“Kids adopt the values of their parents, generally,” Dr. Gratto said. “If it’s culturally acceptable to drink and use drugs here, then that’s what kids learn.”
According to school board president Theresa Samot, the school will be moving forward in anti-drug and alcohol efforts.
“When I first saw the results, I thought there was a need to really look into this further and start some problem solving,” said Samot. “We’ll certainly want to do more surveys and collect more information.”
“I think there’s certainly a need for more education and collaboration with the community,” she said. “The coalition is certainly a good start towards that, so we can really involve different groups in the community and a have a focused effort.”