Thousands of Montgomery County middle and high school students took the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey in 2015 and 2017 in which they answered questions about the drugs, sex, bullying, nutritional habits and violence in their lives.
But only about 40 adults attended the presentation of the results of those surveys showing how young people in Montgomery County Public Schools are experiencing and coping with life and growing up.
Montgomery County Prevention Partners, a youth substance abuse community coalition (a group anyone can join), hosted the community forum at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center this week to share data from the 2015 and 2017 CDC surveys.
Sophie Wenzel, associate director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research, who is analyzing and contextualizing the Montgomery County data, presented some data highlights to the audience.
“As prevention specialists, we need to know what to focus on,” she said. “We need to know what our youth is doing so we can better be able to respond to what’s going on in the community, in schools and in homes,” Wenzel said.
Conducted every two years in many, but not all, states, the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey collects data used to assess trends and guide the nation in identifying and reducing health-risk behavior ranging from substance abuse, bullying, depression and sexual activity, to self-harm, physical health and poor nutrition.
“Youth risk behaviors are often interrelated,” said Nycole deLeeuw, MCPP’s Coordinator. “By focusing on substance abuse we can impact other behavior.”
Montgomery County uses an adapted version of the CDC’s YRBSS.
“We have adapted it to make sure that we ask the questions that are most relevant to our youth in Montgomery County and that satisfy the grant requirements for the Partnership for Success grant, which funds the survey.”
Wenzel presented select results from the 100-plus-question survey.
Although the 2015 and 2017 data points were presented connected by a line between them, two points do not make a trend and, early in the presentation, the audience asked whether the differences apparent between the two numbers presented, were, in fact, statistically significant.
Wenzel agreed that statistics have not yet been carried out and the percentages should only be considered individually, not as change over time.
“Hopefully we’ll have data in 2019,” she said, since three points would more convincingly suggest a trend.
Survey questions, while jarring, reflect national public health concerns as well as those affecting Montgomery County.
About 25 percent of students in both middle and high schools reported self-harm by cutting, pinching or bruising themselves.
Nearly 25 percent of high school students, more in middle school, reported carrying weapons, although lower numbers reported being injured by weapons in school.
A number of questions were new to the survey. Questions about suicide were added in 2015. About a quarter of middle students said they felt “so sad and hopeless every day for two or more weeks in a row that they ceased normal activity.”
Added in 2017 were questions about the use of prescription drugs not prescribed by a doctor and vaping, the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol containing nicotine, produced by e-cigarettes.
Nutrition questions gave insight into the obesity epidemic. About 14 percent of Montgomery County students drank sugar-sweetened beverages four or more times a day. The state average is seven percent.
Asking questions about sexuality to 7th-12th grade students is also only recently allowed. According to Virginia Department of Education rules, sixth graders cannot be asked questions about human sexuality.
About 30 percent of high school students, six percent of middle school students reported being sexually active, only half reported using condoms.
Social misbehavior like bullying was also measured. Nearly half of students have watched while someone else was bullied, a quarter of middle schoolers reported being bullied at school, and about 10 percent said they missed school because of it.
The news is not entirely grim, however.
Context questions asked about whether a student’s family has established rules about alcohol and drug use. More than 70 percent said, “yes,” and around 80 percent reported they have adults in their lives that encourage and support them.
But many reported not eating a meal together with their families in the last week.
“Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use is going down,” said Wenzel, although this appeared to be based on only two data points.
“That said, those numbers are higher than the national average and suicide is high and concerning.”
The presentation was followed by discussion from five experts representing schools, counselors, police, and regional public health talking about structures in place and still needed to address these real-life statistics.
In 2016, a Montgomery County student committed suicide spurring conversation and support efforts. “We were stunned to see students coming and saying “thank you for talking about this,” panelist Melissa Hipple, coordinator of school counseling for MCPS said.
Students now get information about suicide and contact information through the ‘Just Ask’ campaign. “We will help you even if you’re afraid,” Hipple said.
Prevention work for bullying is addressed by a social-emotional curriculum. The more community you develop in a school, the less bullying occurs, she sad.
“Those in band, choir or chess club for example, have a sense of belonging, making them less likely to strike out in a bullying manner.”
The more kids are involved, the less likely they’ll be bullied or be a bully.
Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District talked about sexual activity and in chronic disease, that finds its base in legal drugs like alchohol and poor nutrition.
“Chronic disease is about tobacco. Vaping and jewels and e-cigarettes. People have the misconception that it’s safer. It’s not,“ she said. “Only 62 percent of our students see that five or more drinks a day are concerning. And 70 percent say it’s easy to get alcohol.”
Obesity rates have more than doubled since the late 80’s to nearly 50 percent. Bissell listed, without pause, the 13 cancers highly associated with obesity.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t have this problem, today we do. We have to look at healthy eating,” she said.
Also, there has been a normalization of marijuana use that is concerning to her. Sexual activity without an understanding of human sexuality is a public health concern.
Teenagers, said Bissell, who get pregnant are more likely to drop out of school. Sexual education is paramount to health she said. Only 25 percent are using contraception.
One out of two sexually transmitted diseases happen between ages 15-24, yet condom use is down nationally, and most sexually transmitted infections are not easily identifiable. Most people don’t know they have them and pass them on.
Following the presentation, the audience asked how change can be made. The panel encouraged political action and engagement.
“These are community issues and we need to connect them and address them as a whole community,” Hipple said. “It isn’t just a school issue or a home issue. It’s an ‘all of us’ issue.”
While this community-focused meeting fell on the same night as the school board’s meeting and no board member attended, the survey had been presented to the School Board Sept. 19, 2017 and the board encouraged MCPP to share the numbers with the community said Bethany Webb with MCPP, preparation, arranging panelists and logistics took time.
“When the community speaks up and says ‘this is what is important’ that’s when your people that you’ve elected should act on that. And that’s how it should be. The school operates on what the community says is important,” Hipple said.
The take-home message was that caring for children and raising productive citizens “takes a village.”
While parent attendance was scant, attendance by high and middle school students with the group Teen Connection was robust and engaged.
After the presentation and discussion, the youth group adjourned to brainstorm the programs they thought were working and presented several key messages.
“We want comprehensive, fact-based sex-ed,” they said. “Not just abstinence-based, also not peer-based. We want education-based on safety not just avoidance.”
“Antibullying and sexual harassment should be prevented and talked about. Legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco should be more strongly addressed. Start online-safety education much earlier. And scare tactics don’t work.”
Each declaration was met with applause.
To close, the panel members reminded the audience that all the panel members are more than willing to speak to community groups.
MCPP advertised the community meeting through a variety of media outlets, posting online, formal invitations to legislatures, local governments and parent-teacher organization presidents.
They sent press releases and posted fliers in businesses. Despite the outreach, parents attendance was lean although the organizers were happy with the turnout and hoped for more next time.
Importantly, they used the school-communication platform “Peachjar” designed to reach parents. Asked how they’d heard about the event, many said they didn’t read the overwhelming number of Peachjar emails, although it’s a mechanism designed specifically to announce community events like this one.
The audience suggested that a meeting online may help more parents who are busy at home to participate in the meeting while simultaneously tending to home responsibilities.