Maija Yasui tossed candy to the crowd at Wednesday’s community drug forum as incentive for answering her questions correctly. But the Kit Kat Bars did little to sweeten the ugly statistics she rattled off about drug use and related behaviors among Hood River County’s teens.
The forum, held at Hood River Valley High School’s Bowe Theater, was sponsored by Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital with support from the Hood River County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention Coalition (ATOD). It was aimed at parents, attracted a crowd of about 100, and included panel presentations by counselors from Providence Gorge Counseling and Treatment Services (PGCTS), law enforcement, and students from HRVHS.
Yasui, ATOD director, opened the forum with some sobering results of the latest surveys of students in 8th and 11th grades in the county.
“Do you think alcohol use in Hood River County is up or down for students in the 8th grade?” Yasui asked. The answer: it’s up and down. Thirty-six percent of both boys and girls at Hood River Middle School reported using alcohol in the last 30 days (at the time of the survey last spring), which was up from the same survey two years ago. At Wy’east Middle School, the figure was 27 percent, down from the 2000 survey. (The surveys are conducted each year, but results aren’t officially registered as upward or downward trends until the same data shows up two years in a row.)
Other statistics weren’t so ambiguous. Ten percent of boys and 13 percent of girls at Hood River Middle School reported using methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin in the last 30 days. At Wy’east, there were no students who reported using those drugs. At HRVHS, 22 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls reported using those drugs in the last 30 days. Yasui called this “a huge upward trend.”
“We haven’t had a significant problem with methamphetamine in the past,” Yasui said. “But we’ve seen a trend in the last couple of years.”
Alcohol use at HRVHS was down, according to the student surveys; 50 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls reported using alcohol in the last 30 days. Similarly, tobacco use was down at both middle schools and at HRVHS. Yasui hailed the fact that tobacco use by Wy’east Middle School students was zero percent at the time of the last survey. She attributed that in part to a concentrated anti-tobacco education effort with 5th graders that seems to be showing positive results with students three years later, when they’re more likely to start using tobacco.
Yasui shocked the audience with the latest statistics on sexual activity among youth. In last spring’s surveys, 88 percent of 8th graders reported they were sexually active. That figure is averaged from Hood River and Wy’east middle schools; at Wy’east, 96 percent of 8th grade girls and 87 percent of boys reported that they were sexually active. The figures were slightly lower at Hood River Middle School, with 90 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys reporting being sexually active.
Yasui compared that number to 8th graders surveyed three years ago — now in the 11th grade — of which 59 percent were sexually active.
“We’re seeing something happening here,” Yasui said. “This was a huge jump.”
A student panel took the stage mid-way through the forum to talk candidly about drug use at HRVHS. Yasui emphasized that the six students were not necessarily speaking of “their own experience,” but were presenting cumulative information from focus groups held in various settings — and their views from daily life at the school.
The students talked about weekday and weekend parties held at homes — usually that of a student whose parents were out of town — or at various places around the valley, like Kingsley Reservoir. They also talked about how easy it is to get drugs.
“You can get drugs — meth, coke — easy at school,” one student said.
“Cocaine is the new drug of choice for kids,” said another, adding that it’s “as easy or easier to get (cocaine) as it is to get marijuana. You can come to school tomorrow and get it.” Someone from the audience asked the students’ opinion about what percentage of kids were making “unhealthy choices” regarding drugs and alcohol.
The unanimous answer from the students was “about 30 percent.”
After the student panel, Rich Lamm spoke. A parent of a HRVHS student, Lamm himself graduated from HRVHS 20 years ago.
“I went to high school here,” Lamm said. “I did drugs here. I sold drugs here. It is so easy to get drugs here — it has been for 20 years.
“You should be scared,” he told the crowd. Lamm was a star athlete and “a drug addict,” he said. He started doing methamphetamine in the 10th grade and progressed “to the point where I was an out and out IV drug user.”
He offered a piece of advice to parents: “Look in your kid’s eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, they cannot lie.”
A panel of counselors spoke about adolescent drug use. All of them addressed the issue of “dual diagnosis,” when a teen is abusing drugs or alcohol but also has underlying mental health problems.
“Mental illness will often precede the substance abuse problems,” said Dr. Elizabeth Chambers, a psychiatrist with PGCTS. “Adolescents (with mental health problems) may begin to use drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating these symptoms.”
After the forum Yasui said that, while it wasn’t focused on during the evening, the schools are doing a lot to address drug and alcohol use among students.
“It’s not just getting washed away,” she said. “The school policies are more strict than they’ve ever been in the past.
“We’re doing a lot more proactive things (in the schools) in drug prevention.” She added that, in comparison to 20 years ago, drug and alcohol use is down, although at that time student surveys didn’t include illicit drugs, like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.