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Almost 1 in 5 teens smokes or uses drugs at school, US students report

Most high school students say teen use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs occurs during the school day, often on campus, according to an annual survey. They estimate that about 17 percent of their classmates do so. 

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Thirty-nine percent of teens have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, according to the CDC’s 2011 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years among ninth- to 12th-grade students in public and private schools. In addition, 23 percent of students say they used marijuana, 6.8 percent used cocaine, 11.4 percent used inhalants, 2.9 percent used heroin, and 3.8 percent used methamphetamines within 30 days of taking the survey.

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In looking at trends of the prevalence of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug use on school property, the CDC reports that 5 percent of students have used alcohol and tobacco on campus, 6 percent have smoked marijuana, and 26 percent were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug.

“People are simply not paying attention,” Califano said, in explaining why there has not been much reduction in the number of "drug-infected" schools over the years. “We are trying to get parents, and other adults who have influence in kids’ lives, to look at the world as teens see it, and identify the circumstances that increase or decrease the likelihood that they will use drugs.”

Factors that increase the likelihood of teen substance abuse, according to the survey, include peer pressure via social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Students who attend "drug-infected" schools are more likely to see on social networking sites pictures of their classmates getting drunk, passing out, or using drugs, and 45 percent of students (10.9 million) have seen these types of pictures online. Of those students who have seen partying pictures, 75 percent say the pictures encourage other students to engage in that behavior, and 47 percent say the party scene looks like fun.

Students who have seen online pictures of their peers partying with drugs are more likely to engage in such behavior than are teens who have not. They are four times more likely to have used marijuana (25 percent versus 6 percent), three times more likely to have used alcohol (43 percent versus 13 percent), and almost three times more likely to have used tobacco (16 percent versus 6 percent), the CASAColumbia survey found.

“The takeaway from this survey for parents is to talk to their children and get engaged in their children’s lives,” said Emily Feinstein, CASAColumbia’s senior policy analyst and project director of the teen survey, in a statement. “They should ask their children what they’re seeing at school and online. It takes a teen to know what’s going on in the teen world, but it takes parents to help their children navigate that world.”

Parental engagement is the No. 1 way for parents to confront drug use in schools and in their teenagers’ lives, says Califano. Family dinners and attending religious services are two avenues for parents to engage with their kids.

“Parents think there is nothing they can do about it,” he says. “That attitude should change, and we are trying to change it.”

CASAColumbia’s website offers advice to parents who want to find out more about how schools deal with substance abuse. The organization suggests that parents talk to school administrators about the training teachers receive to recognize and respond to student drug use, what prevention programs the school offers and in what grades, and if the school tests for illegal substances.

“This survey drives home the fact that our leaders, whether they are presidential candidates, congressional candidates, mayors, or governors, talk about the importance of educating kids but ignore the big problem of the use of drugs,” Califano says. “If they are serious about getting kids better educated, they have to get serious about drug use. “


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