Study: Alcohol, drug use down at Aspen High School

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Alcohol and drug use by Aspen High School students has gone down considerably over the past four years, a trend that has school officials optimistic about the future.

According to the 2011 Student Attitude and Behavior Survey at the high school, from 2008 to 2011, lifetime alcohol use declined among AHS freshmen. In addition, the number of “high-risk drinkers” – defined as those students who reported having consumed five or more drinks in a row two or more times in the past 30 days – similarly declined. In 2008, 80 students fell into that category; by 2011, only 37 could be classified as high-risk.

“Seeing young students report never having used alcohol is phenomenal,” said Michael Connolly, of Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, which sponsored the survey. “It indicates students are choosing to delay their use, which we know from research will lower their risk of later addiction.

“And if the trend in (high-risk drinkers) continues, in the next four years, there won’t be any at Aspen High.”

Equally if not more important is what the survey showed kids think about drinking. In 2011, 90 percent of students “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” that it was “cool to get drunk.” In 2008, 51 percent believed that.

“What all of this means to us is that a lot of kids are making really good decisions,” said Aspen High counselor Emily Weingart, who also sits on the Valley Partnership board of directors. “And as more kids realize that their peers are making those good decisions, the more likely they will, too.

“It’s about social norms, and it seems to be working.”

In fact, the survey, which is developed and analyzed by the internationally recognized FCD Educational Services, of Newton, Mass., was chosen because it focuses on social norms. The survey is funded by Valley Partnership as part of the $100,000 the local nonprofit group spends in Aspen schools on programs such as the Student Attitude and Behavior Survey, health education and other initiatives.

According to Connolly, the reason social norms are important in the world of alcohol and drug prevention is because the gap between what kids believe is happening and what really is happening is “the sweet spot.”

“What we’re seeing in Aspen is not unique. We see it all over when perception and reality come together,” Connolly said, likening the drug and alcohol trend to past trends in seatbelt use and cigarette smoking. “When we are able to close the gap, unhealthy behaviors – in this case teen drinking and pot smoking – go down.”

In addition to questions about alcohol use at Aspen High, the survey asked students about marijuana use (the survey did not include questions on other drugs, as their use is negligible in AHS, Connolly said).

According to the survey results, marijuana use from 2008 to 2011 was down 9.4 percent among ninth-graders, 12.2 percent among 10th-graders, 6.7 percent among 11th-graders and 4 percent among 12th-graders. At the same time, national data from the Monitoring the Future Study shows that marijuana use by adolescents in general has been increasing over the past couple of years, as has a rise in school suspensions, expulsions and arrests.

“The introduction of medicinal marijuana dispensaries has created challenges for Valley Partnership,” Connolly said. “Our response is to educate not from a perspective of morality but from one of health.”

School resource officer Tina Schairer said that this is an approach that works especially well in a community such as Aspen.

“People here are really health-conscious, so it makes sense to talk to kids about this from a wellness standpoint,” she said. “And what I see is that Aspen kids, in general, really do care about themselves and their well-being.

“They also have great pride in their school and in their community. And I believe there is a direct link between this and making good choices.”