CAPE ELIZABETH — An incident involving alcohol consumption by high school students at this year’s state drama festival briefly put the problem of teenage drinking back in the spotlight.

But a new survey of students suggests the underlying problem is unlikely to fade as quickly as the recent publicity did.

According to their responses to the 2008 Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey/Youth Tobacco Survey, students in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland are more likely to consume alcohol and engage in binge drinking by their senior class years than their peers statewide.

By 12th grade, 63 percent of Cape Elizabeth High School students said they had consumed alcohol within 30 days prior to taking the survey. At Scarborough High School, the figure was 55.5 percent. Students at South Portland High School said they began drinking alcohol at an earlier age, but their results by senior year were the lowest of the three, with 48.7 percent saying they drank.

For binge drinking – commonly defined as drinking with the primary intention of becoming intoxicated over a short period of time – South Portland students led Cape and Scarborough in grades nine through 11. By senior year, the three schools were nearly even, with 33 percent of South Portland’s seniors admitting to binge drinking, along with 33.3 percent in Cape and 34.6 percent in Scarborough.

For marijuana use, South Portland High School students again started at a younger age, but were surpassed by both Cape and Scarborough in 10th grade. Though South Portland students’ usage rose above the other communities in 11th grade, it dropped off in senior year, while usage in Cape and Scarborough increased.

By senior year, South Portland’s percentage was almost even with the statewide rate of marijuana use, about 25.4 percent. But the Scarborough figure was almost 10 points higher and Cape seniors spiked to 39.9 percent, or 14.5 percentage points higher than the state average.

Statewide, use of alcohol and drugs has declined a bit over the past eight years in Maine, according to the survey. But the statistics show that 44.9 percent of Maine high school seniors consumed alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey; 26.2 percent of Maine’s seniors admitted to binge drinking within the two-week period before the survey and 25.4 percent of Maine’s seniors used marijuana in the 30 days prior to the survey.

John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said some schools have been reluctant to release the survey results, concerned that the public will attribute troubling statistics to the quality of the school systems. But he said the surveys are administered through the schools because they are the most efficient way of ensuring participation.

“The easiest place to survey the kids is in the school system,” Martins said. “When we lose the ability to survey, we lose the ability to get
accurate results.”

Students at risk

In the section of the 2008 survey that measured “prevalence of students at risk,” Cape Elizabeth and South Portland students – and especially those in Cape – had significantly higher percentages than the state average in many categories. These results were found particularly under peer/individual risk factors, ranging from “attitudes favorable to drug use” to “friends’ use of drugs.” Cape’s figures were escalated in twice the number of categories as South Portland’s. 

In contrast, Cape and Scarborough students also rated higher than the state average on the positive side – “prevalence of students protected” – in many of the categories, including family, community and school rewards for positive involvement.

Scarborough High School Principal Pat Conant said pro-social behaviors in the survey results provided “the biggest telling graph … the number of kids involved and those that have something to do makes a huge difference.”

Conant said the Scarborough community supports its students with a wide range of opportunities to become involved in activities other than alcohol and drugs.

But community support is only one piece of the puzzle.

Although Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeffrey Shedd said there have been many events for students, parents and the community – working closely with Cape’s substance abuse prevention action team, Healthy Outreach for Prevention and Education – he remains dismayed by the number of students using alcohol and drugs.

“The most positive thing is our ninth-graders come to us using at a
significantly lower rate than surrounding schools,” Shedd said. “But the alarming
thing is by 12th grade, they rise above. It concerns me a lot.”

Cape Elizabeth High School
provides health education, but this year the town eliminated its
part-time substance abuse counselor because of budget concerns, he said. 

really see the significant increase from ninth to 10th grade and really
that’s the mission of the action team,” Shedd said, “to figure out why that is so we
can figure out what to do about it.”

He said he encourages parents to establish rules at home, making it clear that alcohol and drug abuse will most likely be discovered and that there will be consequences.

South Portland Principal Jeanne Crocker agreed that families, schools and communities must “embrace the problem together” in their attempt to reduce alcohol and drug use by students.

“Survey after survey and research data always say parents are most influential in their children’s lives,” she said. “It’s very reassuring for parents to know they (their children) look first to them; their sphere of influence is enormous.”

Crocker praised the community for allowing the schools to hire counselors, a liaison and social workers to talk to students, watch for suspicious behavior and talk to parents.

HOPE helps

The HOPE program in Cape Elizabeth is a part of the Regional Substance Abuse Action Team, a community resource program through People’s Regional Opportunities Program’s Communities Promoting Health Coalition.

The program supports drug and alcohol education and prevention in the area through an assortment of community activities. With a team comprised of school staff, parents, leaders of local substance abuse prevention groups and community members from South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, as well as Gorham and Westbrook, the group meets every six weeks, spearheading public awareness campaigns, educational programs for teens at risk and information that helps parents talk to their teens about alcohol.

All three principals said they employ a variety of methods for detecting and combating drug and alcohol use in their schools. With ongoing training, teachers and staff are attuned to conversations among students and are required to report anything suspicious. The schools authorize random locker and parking lot searches by police dogs and follow up on reports from parents, teachers and students.

“It’s really important to stress the vast majority of kids are not participating (in drugs and alcohol),” Conant said. “The message sometimes goes out that everybody is doing it.”

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected].

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