Middle school daze
Editor’s note: In recent weeks Sierra Sun reporter Christine Stanley spoke with more than 60 students, ages 12 to 16, and nearly a dozen teachers and health professionals about drug and alcohol use among middle schoolers in Truckee. In general, Stanley found experimentation and use among eighth-graders to be much higher than use among sixth or seventh graders. While it would be inaccurate to say that “many” eighth-graders are involved with drugs or alcohol, Stanley found that the issue is not invisible. To allow students to speak candidly about this topic, their names have been changed to protect privacy.
Alder Creek Middle School has been in session for 39 days and already two girls and three boys have been suspended ” each on separate occasions ” for possession of illegal substances on campus, including alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.
Rachel Falk, a counselor at Alder Creek, said she usually sees eight to ten students a year for drug- or alcohol-related issues, so the number of cases already this semester has been eye-opening.
But to may eighth-graders, their classmates’ suspensions don’t come as a surprise.
“[Drug use] is not a huge issue in middle school, but it’s getting worse,” said one eighth-grade female who admitted to “frequent” alcohol use.
Even with what is happening at the middle school, substance use by pre-teens is by no means an epidemic.
During the 2003-2004 school year the tenth biennial state-funded Healthy Kids Survey was issued to more than 10,000 seventh-, ninth-, and eleventh-graders in California. The survey showed an overall decline in risk-behaviors related to substance use, continuing the downward trend observed in the 2001 survey.
Meanwhile, students at Alder Creek recently marked the long-running national Red Ribbon Week, an anti-smoking campaign created by the Foundation for a Smokefree America. The program educates students of all grade levels about the risks associated with tobacco.
Alder Creek hosted a variety of daily activities to spawn awareness, not only on the issue of tobacco, but of alcohol and marijuana as well.
According to the Healthy Kids Survey, a full 10 percent of California’s seventh-graders use or have tried marijuana, six percent have used inhalants such as glue or paint, and 26 percent have tried alcohol.
“It’s kind of sad that kids are doing these things at this age,” said one seventh-grade female. “I think it’s kind of shocking.”
It’s a tough battle to wage, but Alder Creek teachers and administrators are doing their best to provide students with the maximum amount of information and resources ” one of those being students themselves.
Peer helpers are students who have been trained by Falk, the Truckee Police Department and Tahoe Women’s Services in helping fellow students make better decisions. The students don’t deal with issues of physical or emotional abuse, sexual harassment, or the use of weapons, but they do tackle other tough issues such as peer pressure, body image, mild substance use, and typical teen dramas.
During Red Ribbon Week, more than a dozen teams of peer helpers educated classes on various alcohol and drug related issues, such as how drugs effect the young body, the correlation between alcohol consumption and teen pregnancy, and the devastating effects of crystal meth, a drug that observers said is not used in the middle school, but is known to be used at the high school level.
“Most middle school principles want to deny that things start happening at that age, but statistics show that experimentation begins as early as age 11, which is why I am really impressed that Alder Creek has their youth program,” said Shannon Glaz, alcohol prevention program coordinator for Friday Night Live, a California state alcohol and drug program that operates at Tahoe Truckee High School.
According to the Healthy Kids Survey, almost 20 percent of seventh-grade students reported never having prevention or anti-drug or alcohol instruction in a class or program, a percentage that has remained constant since 1995.
But even with the peer helpers at Alder Creek, when asked, not a single seventh-grader in a group of more than a dozen could define the difference between a joint and a cigarette.
Ask an eighth-grader, however, and the responses are significantly different.
Why such a chasm between the knowledge and use of seventh and eighth-grade students? Many students and school professionals agreed that the changes in maturity between the two grades is exponential, and that a new-felt sense of independence is a leading factor.
“Kids have already separated, or are trying hard to separate, from their parents,” Falk said. “By March [of their eighth-grade year], there is such a change in attitude, and a feeling that they are done with middle school and are now independent.”
Because of those changes, drug and alcohol use takes a substantial leap between the two grade levels.
“We noticed a jump in risk behaviors in the summer between seventh and eighth grade,” said Felicia Sobonya, Community Tobacco Prevention Coordinator for Nevada County. “A lot of those kids have older friends that have been exposed to the high school scene.”
Students expressed that they know changes will be coming in high school, though few could pin-point what those changes would be. However, there was a definite perception that high school is “about” drugs and alcohol, and that premature use might ease that transition.
Middle school is a time where students riding the edge of risk-behavior can be pulled either way, said Falk. And because of that, parents need to increase their awareness.
“You tend to see use in children who’s families lack boundaries, supervision, and structure,” Falk said. “They may have let go of you, but you can’t let go of them. With all the separation, they need the most chaperoning now than ever.”
Parent responsibility was at the forefront of many conversations, not just with teachers and administrators, but with students as well. Even the youngest of students commented on the importance of parent involvement.
“If your parents just act like they’re your friends, you can still get away with anything,” said one female sophomore at Tahoe Truckee High School.
“Sometimes you think, ‘well, if my parents are being irresponsible with me, can I be irresponsible with me too?'” said another. “It’s up to you to have self control.”
But how much self-control do young teens have on their own? For some, personal convictions are strong enough to hold fast in the face of pressures, but for others, those boundaries are easy to break.
“There needs to be someone in a child’s life that provides support because those relationships lead to reduced risk behaviors,”
Sobonya said. “There also needs to be alternative activities as a way to keep them busy, involved, and connected.”
Alder Creek’s assistant principal Scott Gehrman has spent the past ten years as a counselor and administrator in middle schools across the state. He noted that in his experience with at-risk youth, besides the absence of proper parenting, a lack of extra-curricular involvement was also a key factor.
“It’s a common excuse that there is nothing to do here,” Gehrman said of Truckee. “The majority of kids who we see experimenting aren’t involved in other activities, and usually don’t have family structure.
“I’m amazed at the number of kids who haven’t backpacked, or who aren’t involved in the options they have in their own backyard.”