Seventh and eighth graders on the Island are consuming alcohol, smoking marijuana and having sex at rates far higher than middle schoolers from two years ago.
The latest data on risky teen behavior - released last night to Vineyard school leaders - shows that while cigarette smoking among Island teens may have decreased, the use of alcohol and drugs remains almost unchanged overall despite various community efforts aimed at curbing such behavior.
But among the Vineyard's youngest adolescents - the seventh and eighth graders - the trend is markedly upward. Two years ago, just two per cent of seventh graders and six per cent of eighth graders reported having had sex, according to results of a risk behavior survey.
This year, based on a survey taken in February, that figure jumped to 11 per cent of seventh graders and 14 per cent of eighth graders who say they've had sexual intercourse. In raw numbers, that translates to 39 students out of 331 surveyed. Sixth graders were not asked about their sexual experience.
Not surprisingly, survey results show a similar increase in alcohol and drug use, even among sixth graders. While the raw numbers are small, use of marijuana tripled from two per cent to six per cent in two years. That's 30 middle school students saying they smoked pot in the last 30 days.
Sixth graders, according to the survey, also appear to be drinking more than their counterparts from two years ago. Rates of current alcohol use went from four per cent to nine per cent.
The use of alcohol and drugs directly affects sexual behavior, said Kathy Perrotta, a health educator from the Oak Bluffs School who was scheduled to present survey results to the all-Island school committee last night.
While health educators in Island schools encourage abstinence among young teens, the real issue comes down to parenting, according to Mrs. Perrotta.
"I attribute it to community involvement and parent education or lack therof," she said.
West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey said yesterday she's not surprised to hear that teen drug and alcohol use is on the rise.
"I don't have any question in my mind that use is up. I'm hearing names of teens involved with [drug] dealers that I didn't hear a couple years ago," said Chief Toomey.
A total of 1,147 Island students in grades six through 12 took the survey, sitting down for about 45 minutes to answer a battery of questions, ranging from drug and alcohol use to violence and suicide.
Two years ago, when school officials released results of a similar survey, the reaction was profound. Peg Regan, principal of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, called for family planning counselors to set up a counseling clinic inside the high school to help students who were struggling with sexual issues.
A community forum was held at the Whaling Church, but it was mostly teachers and counselors who attended. Only a few teenagers and parents bothered to come.
Then, Rob Doyle, a counselor at Martha's Vineyard Community Services, invited a social worker from Maine to spend two days working with students, school staff and parents to build a consensus about how the community could reduce alcohol and drug use among Island teens.
Other initiatives followed - alcohol-free dances, more parent meetings at the high school and a revamping of the health curriculum.
"It's been a way to keep talking about it," said Chief Toomey. "We're a nation in denial about alcohol. Kids not learning how to socialize without substance use is not easy, especially when we're around adults who don't know how to do it."
Indeed, among middle school students, 28 per cent reported that their preferred way for obtaining alcohol was to take it from their own parents or a friend's parents without their consent. About one-fourth of high school students said friends gave them alcohol or they simply asked someone of legal age to buy it for them.
Cocaine use - while low - is also showing up on the radar in higher numbers. Five per cent of high school students who took the survey, 32, said they'd used cocaine in the previous month. That's up from two per cent two years ago. Students were also questioned for the first time about the use of ecstasy, and four per cent said they'd used the drug.
Marijuana use overall remained at levels that exceed usage compared to teens statewide. Among high school students surveyed, 44 per cent reported current use of marijuana, one-and-a-half times higher than the 31 per cent of high schoolers who said in a 1999 survey that they had smoked in the previous 30 days.
Binge drinking was also reported at rates higher than the statewide results. In this year's study, 42 per cent of Vineyard high school students said they went on an alcohol binge in the last 30 days, compared to 33 per cent in the state survey from 1999.
The survey also queried students about thoughts of suicide and concerns about weight. The results were virtually the same as two years ago. About 14 per cent of those surveyed had seriously considered suicide and about four per cent had attempted to take their own life.
As for body weight, about one-fourth of the students perceived themselves as overweight. Despite that figure, roughly 60 per cent of high school students had attempted to lose weight.
About the only promising data to come out of the latest survey results is the drop in cigarette use by teenagers at the high school. Cigarette smoking among high school students fell from 30 per cent to 20 per cent.
That statistic makes Mrs. Perrotta hopeful. She reasons that if cigarettes are a gateway to drug and alcohol use, then the reduction in smoking could have a domino effect.
Still, among middle school students, cigarette smoking remained at about the same level.
But Mrs. Perrotta is looking for positive signs wherever she can find them. And counselors such as Mr. Doyle have also pointed to the campaign against smoking that could make headway in the fight against drugs and alcohol.
Budget cuts at the state level, though, could hamper efforts on the Island to raise awareness among both teens and their parents. Mrs. Perrotta, who coordinates health grants Islandwide, said that a number of state grants are at risk.