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Chronic problem in Aspen schools?

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Marijuana and alcohol use at Aspen High School is twice the national average, according to a recent study.

However, there was virtually no reported use of methamphetamines ” a substance recently seen in increasing amounts along the Interstate 70 corridor, said Michael Connolly, executive director of Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention (VPDP), the nonprofit that funded the study.

Only a few students reported using cocaine. And 20 percent of Aspen High School (AHS) students had smoked a cigarette within the last year.

“What we’ve found [are] the old standbys of alcohol and pot,” Connolly said.

When the survey was released to parents, there were a few surprised adults, said Connolly, and a few who nodded their heads and said they weren’t surprised. But in general no one was shocked.

Connolly said he wasn’t surprised by the results, noting that Aspen has a reputation as a party town.

But almost more noteworthy than actual use is the fact that Aspen students “grossly overestimate” their peers’ alcohol and marijuana use. That’s according to Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD), the entity that administered the study. Perception is important, Connolly said, because students are more likely to use substances if they think their peers are doing so.

For example, because students are aware that methamphetamines use is virtually nonexistent, the drug arguably won’t gain popularity in the near future. On the other hand, because last year’s freshmen overestimated the number of students who smoke marijuana once or twice a year (by a factor of three), they may be more likely to smoke themselves.

Meanwhile, there are many signs of students choosing not turn to alcohol or drugs. Nearly half of Aspen High students either don’t drink at all, or only drink once or twice a year. Almost 75 percent of students don’t believe there is social pressure to drink. And roughly 70 percent of Aspen students have never used alcohol or drugs before a school event.

So when FCD arrives on the AHS campus in two weeks for a series of workshops with high school and middle school students, said Connolly, the organization will focus on what it calls “social norming” “ensuring that students realize true alcohol and drug use at their campus.

According to Connolly, social norming is the only method that has been scientifically proven to reduce drug and alcohol use in a community.

“We’re not a temperance group,” he explained. “But our goal is to get information out to the kids and the community at-large … and help kids and adults make informed decisions.”

The workshop facilitators, recovering alcoholics and addicts themselves, also will work to paint a realistic picture of alcohol and drug abuse, said Aspen High School Principal Charlie Anastas. The goal is to raise awareness among students who might be headed for problems, he said.

“I hate to say [it], but addiction knows no age limit,” said Anastas.

According to the study, 73 students in the 10th to 12th grades are what FCD calls “at-risk drinkers.” That is, they had had five or more drinks on two or more occasions within the last 30 days. Approximately 50 percent of those students had driven after drinking within the last year. Approximately 70 percent of high-risk drinkers had done something they later regretted when they were drinking.

The FCD workshops is one of several programs VPDP will fund at Aspen High School this year, spending a total of $75,000 toward lowering drug and alcohol use at the school. The 27-year-old nonprofit also funds half the salary for two health teachers, one at the high school and one at middle school. And this year, it will help fund mandatory freshman seminar classes that teach study and life skills.

According to Anastas, at present there is really no way to determine whether all this time and money spent is resulting in increased or decreased drug and alcohol use, as the district lacks consistent data.

That’s why Connolly hopes that the FCD study will be administered annually, and that this year’s study will provide a baseline for future years. At present, VPDP plans to have FCD administer the survey every year.

But Connolly is cautious.

“We don’t necessarily expect to see [improvement] in year one or two,” he said, explaining that conventional wisdom is that no program effects declines in alcohol and drug use before the third year.

Between the Cocktail Classic and Bud Light Big Air Fridays, Connolly said, sometimes he feels like he and his organization are fighting an uphill battle.

But he pointed out that kids who start drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to become addicted. And for each year that kids hold off, there is a 14 percent reduction in the likelihood that they will become alcoholics or addicts. And of course, he noted the community benefits of keeping drunk drivers off the street.

“It sounds corny, but if you keep a kid from driving drunk ” isn’t that worth the money?” he asked.

Asked for evidence that the FCD program is working at Aspen High School, Anastas and Connolly both pointed to overwhelmingly positive reviews from students about the program. But Anastas acknowledged that he has no hard evidence either way.

“It’s the funny thing about education, you just never know,” he said.

But then he considered his experience with alumnae.

“You go 20 years and then some person comes in off the street and tells you [that] you had some huge impact,” he said, pausing. “[So] I’d have to think that, yes, it does [have an impact.]”

In addition to its presentations in the schools, FCD will also be hosting a presentation at the Given Institute at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 22, focusing on drug and alcohol issues in the community at large. On Thursday night, Oct. 23, at 5:30, there will be an open house at the District Theater targeting parents with children in schools. Topics covered will include effective ways to communicate with children about drugs, up-to-date facts about current drug use, what parents should say about their own experimentation with alcohol and drugs, and the early warning signs of abuse.

kredding@aspentimes.com


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