Drinking and drug use among teens is getting fresh attention in the Pentucket Regional School District following surveys that have heightened concerns about the problem.
A risk behavior survey administered by the district last year found that rates of underage drinking and cocaine use among Pentucket Regional High School students had risen since the last survey in 2005 and were above the state average.
The Pentucket Community Wellness Council, created by the district last year to address community health issues, highlighted the need for further action on teen substance abuse and other risky behavior in a recent report.
"It's a wonderful community to live in," council chairwoman Erin Seaton said of the district's towns, Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury. "So it's hard for people to examine some of the challenges of our community, some of the ways we don't do a very good job protecting our youth."
Two other surveys - one the council took of middle school parents and the other administered by a Pentucket High School health teacher and council member to her students - also contributed to the council's overall concern about risky behavior, according to Seaton, who teaches education at the Tufts University School of Education, and at Merrimack College.
She said in the teacher's survey, 43 percent of students reported having ridden in a car with someone under the influence of alcohol; 74 percent said they knew someone who could provide alcohol to them; and 21 percent said they could obtain marijuana in school in a hour or less.
"If we are not addressing the health and safety of our children, then they can't learn, they can't function," Seaton said. "One of the most critical topics in the community now is to find ways to better support our youth and families."
Pentucket, like other state school districts, administers the federal Youth Risk Behavior survey to middle- and high-schoolers every two years, the latest in 2007.
In that survey, 52 percent of Pentucket high students reported using alcohol, up from 40 percent in 2005, and above the 48 percent state average. Of those, 34 percent reported engaging in binge drinking in the last 30 days, up from 26 percent in 2005 and above the state average of 27 percent.
Meanwhile, 11 percent of Pentucket high students reported using cocaine in the past year, up from 8 percent in 2005 and above the state average of 8 percent. With marijuana, 26 percent said they had used it in the last month, down from 27 percent in 2005 and equal to the state average.
"The issue of drinking and drug use among teens needs to be addressed in a very comprehensive way by the schools, parents, law enforcement, and community agencies working together in partnership," said Ruth Brophy, a council member who co-chaired the group this year.
"It's important we address it now before a tragedy occurs," added Brophy, until recently district health education and health services coordinator now reassigned to teach biology in the fall because that job was eliminated.
Seaton said other worrisome figures from the survey included that 23 percent of middle school students and 18 percent of high school students reported having been the target of harassment in school, and that only 67 percent of sexually active high school students reported using condoms.
One theme highlighted in council discussions was the need for coordinated after-school programs and a centralized place to offer them, Seaton said.
Another was the "way in which stress may be the root cause of much of the risk-taking," she said, noting many in the parents' survey "highlighted stress as one of their most important concerns about their child's health."
Assistant School Superintendent Bill Hart, a council member who co-chaired the group, said it was a "great step" for the towns "to have a council that is addressing the broad nature of some of the risky behaviors of our youth" and community. He said schools share the group's concerns.
At a recent meeting in which it heard of the council's report, the regional school committee authorized the group to distribute to parents a brochure the council prepared on teen substance abuse.