Fewer Students Drinking, Smoking

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fewer Fairfax County students are binge drinking, smoking cigarettes and using marijuana than five years ago, according to a newly released survey of 14,000 public school students.

But the 2005 Fairfax County Youth Survey also shows that bullying and inhalant use are problems and that more Fairfax students feel depressed than their peers nationwide.

Fairfax government, school and community leaders use the survey -- administered every two years to gauge risky behavior among young people -- to help develop prevention programs and inform parents of potential dangers. Randomly selected students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades answered the questions in December.

Denise Raybon, Fairfax's prevention coordinator, said the survey was encouraging about teen drinking and drug use, but parents and officials need to remain vigilant. She said the county hopes to schedule community meetings in the fall to discuss the results.

"It certainly showed us that most of our students are thriving and engaging in fewer risky behaviors than they were in 2001, but certainly some of our youth are struggling," Raybon said. "We'd love to have some dialogue in the community about how we can all take some responsibility."

In 2005, 47.9 percent of seniors, 29.5 percent of sophomores and 16 percent of eighth-graders reported drinking alcohol in the past month. The percentage has decreased in all three age groups since 2001, when 53.4 percent of seniors, 36 percent of 10th-graders and 21 percent of eighth-graders said they had drunk in the past month.

Many students, however, continue to put themselves or others at risk. According to the survey, nearly 20 percent of teenagers 16 or older said they have driven a car after drinking alcohol. More than 27 percent said they had ridden in a car with someone who had been drinking.

Many of the students also said they have struggled with depression. About 32 percent of the students said they had feelings of sadness or hopelessness each day over a period of weeks that had led them to stop their usual routine. About 13 percent said they had considered suicide.

"I was very sad to see the number of students who are thinking about suicide," said School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason). "We have kids who are depressed or experiencing bullying or harassing behavior, and I would like to have us give as much attention to these problems as we do to alcohol and drug abuse."

The Fairfax Partnership for Youth, a nonprofit group, has held a series of sessions at schools and churches to help parents and teachers recognize signs of depression in teenagers. Susan Lydick, program coordinator for the group's Youth Suicide and Depression task force, said the group hopes to help parents differentiate between typical teen angst and more serious problems.

"They think it's just going to pass," Lydick said. "People aren't aware how serious depression is."

The survey indicated that inhalant use -- using aerosol products such as cleaning supplies to get high -- is a concern among younger children. About 5.5 percent of eighth-graders said they'd used inhalants in the past month.

Several School Board members said they are convinced that many students weren't honest when they said they weren't involved in gangs. Nearly 3 percent of students said they were involved in a gang, compared with 5.6 percent in 2001.

"Based on our monthly disciplinary hearings, we're seeing that problem continue," said School Board member Brad Center (Lee).

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