Given the chance to sound off about the results of a survey that tracked their behavior around alcohol, drugs, violence and sex, Island teenagers are not at a loss for words.

This week, at the Gazette’s request, high school guidance counselor John Fiorito invited a group of nine students to gather after school and discuss the survey’s findings. Questions were posed. How well did the results reflect aspects of teenage life on the Vineyard? How did these five boys and four girls want their parents and the community to respond to the information? And how could teenagers account for rates of alcohol and marijuana use on the Island that surpass teen use in the rest of the state?

Students did not give their names for publication as they weighed in on such questions, answering bluntly, challenging their peers, defending their actions and calling for parents to be understanding and trusting, not suspicious and punishing.

The lively discussion did in some ways offer a glimpse into the kind of conversations school counselors hope will take place between teens and parents following the 7 p.m. public meeting on Monday, Nov. 6 at the Whaling Church in Edgartown. At that meeting, the social research team which conducted last February’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey will present the results of the responses collected from 1,057 Island students who completed the survey. The students encompassed grades six through 12. School counselors will also be on hand to answer questions.

Among other results, the survey reported that in both alcohol and marijuana use, Island youth outpaced their counterparts in the rest of the state by more than 10 percentage points. With alcohol, 64 percent of Vineyard high school students said they had been drinking in the previous month, compared to 52 percent statewide.

There was a similar disparity when it came to pot smoking. On the Island, 43 per cent of high school students said they had used marijuana in the last month, compared to 31 per cent of high school students in the rest of the state.

The group of Vineyard high school students who participated in this week’s discussion did not dispute those results. One of the boys thought the percentages actually underestimated the use, but one of the girls contended that the question of use was too broad.

“It should have made a distinction between someone getting trashed and passing out and someone who had just a beer or experimented,” she said.

Very quickly into this conversation, some students began to bristle at their age group being singled out for such scrutiny. “I’d like to see this survey given to adults, honestly,” said a girl.

“They’d all lie,” said one boy.

“I think drug use in adults would be surprising if they did it truthfully,” said another girl.

The students began to ponder the reasons that substance use rates on the Island came in higher than the state averages, and they focused on the role played by adults in the community. “Obviously, we’re going to end up doing the same things as the adults are doing,” said a girl. “So many people get (drugs) from the adults.”

“I know a few adults that grow it,” said a boy. “It’s not just the kids on this Island. The adults teach the kids.”

With marijuana, in particular, there was a strong consensus that an “Island culture” condones its use. “On this Island, some parents say, ‘I don’t mind if you smoke weed.’ They would rather you smoke than drink,” said a girl. “Kids feel if they smoke and then drive, it’s not a big deal.”

But another girl quickly challenged that assumption. “You put yourself at risk when you put yourself in a car with someone who’s been smoking or drinking,” she said. “You don’t know if something might not happen at any second.”

Students were asked to explain why the use of alcohol and pot jumped so sharply between eighth and ninth grade in the transition to the high school. According to the survey results, 28 per cent of eighth graders reported drinking alcohol in the previous month. In ninth grade, that figure almost doubled to 55 per cent. For pot, just four per cent of eighth graders reported smoking marijuana in the previous month. By ninth grade, the rate had shot up to 31 per cent.

Both boys and girls talked of an initiation process into the weekend party scene, shepherded by older students. “By that summer, you want to try all the new things,” said a girl who recalled starting at the high school. “It’s not an issue of peer pressure. It’s a younger person going to an older person and saying, ‘Hey, can I go to a party with you?’”

A boy said, “Sports has a lot to do with that jump [in percentages].” He said that upperclass male students often make a point of taking ninth graders out to get drunk.

Almost none of the teenagers blamed boredom with the Island for the prevalence of parties. On the contrary, many of them acknowledged that they enjoyed the thrill of driving around the Island in search of the big party. But one girl couldn’t believe the enthusiasm her peers felt for the parties. Rather than being in a caravan of cars looking for a party, “why not stay at home and watch a movie?” she asked.

None of these teenagers clamored for a teen center. In fact, one boy viewed that effort as a waste of time. “Kids have always complained about no place to go,” he said. “But the remedy of ‘Let’s build a community center with an arcade and a pingpong table,’ kids will be like, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of.’”

While the students refrained from blaming the Island for teen alcohol and drug use, they did acknowledge its influences. “It’s harder here in the winter,” said a girl. “The Island in a way just shuts down.” And the smallness of the winter population, said one boy, means kids who don’t go to parties stand out and are ridiculed.

“If you don’t go out on the weekend and you’re a popular kid, you get crap for it like ‘You didn’t go out, you’re such a loser.’ Off-Island it would be easier to hide,” he said. “There would be four or five parties, nobody would even notice or ask if you went, and you could avoid doing the drugs and alcohol.”

The parties on weekends appear to be a potent force for some of the students. They are a topic of Monday morning conversation and a magnet for the kids who want to be social. They are also the stage for clear differences in gender behavior.

The girls said when they go to parties, they look out for their friends, take responsibility for them or assume the role of a designated driver, holding car keys and refraining from drinking. “I’ve seen kids take keys from people,” said a girl. “A lot of times, the kids take care of each other. Parents don’t see that. They don’t understand that we’re responsible for each other.”

But boys did not see their role as caretakers. “Valuing someone else’s life, that’s really sweet and all, but unless I’m really close to someone, I’ll leave them alone,” said a boy. “I’m not one to say ‘I’ll take your keys.’”

Some girls tried to convince the boys that they should care. One girl recalled the death of Ryan Mone in a drunk driving accident. “How bad would you feel if that happened?” she asked. “That was a lesson I’ll always carry with me.” But another boy said, “That was a lesson learned but I don’t think it stuck for very long.”

Discussion of the party scene also offered insight into the relationships between boys and girls, with drugs and alcohol playing a role in sexual behavior. “Guys think a good way to get a girl is to get her drunk,” said one girl. Another one quickly added, “Girls know that. We’re not these defenseless victims.”

One boy said, “Girls have more options to drink and smoke weed than boys do.” At least a few of the girls said they were happy with this arrangement, not having to pay for the alcohol or marijuana, and for the boys, it erased the need for social skills.

“It’s a way to start talking to a girl,” said a boy. “It’s like having a bag of candy and being attracted to you and wanting to talk to you. It makes them feel comfortable.”

Only one girl objected to this scenario, saying she would much prefer a boy starting a conversation about musical tastes rather than simply offering to share a pipe full of pot. “God forbid you could start a conversation with something intelligent,” she said.

Students were asked about making decisions in these settings, and while some acknowledged the intense peer pressure of being in a car when a marijuana joint is being passed around, others were adamant that they can always say no.

The same ambivalence did not hold true when they were asked whether they were comfortable calling their parents to pick them up if they felt unsafe or too drunk or too high from pot to drive. “As much as your parents say they would understand, I would never call,” said a girl.

But in sharp contrast was the students’ trust in the SafeRides program, which is run by student volunteers who will answer calls on weekend nights, acting like a taxi service for teenagers in need. “It’s probably the best thing on this Island for teenagers,” said a boy. “It’s totally confidential. Your parents do not know.”

One girl said she felt supported by the community’s and the school’s decisions to support SafeRides and provide free condom distribution, but students yearned for some understanding from parents.

“I would like parents to know that nothing’s forced on kids,” said a girl. “Kids can say no, and they do say no.”

“Parents need to know that wherever you go, there will be drugs around,” said a boy.

Another girl said she hoped that as parents looked at the survey results, there would be more sympathy and communication. “Being a teen, some kids will want to experiment,” she said. “I hope there would be some understanding that if your kid does call for a ride that, rather than getting mad, they would think of it in a good way. Kids  recognize they’re in a difficult situation and they know the difference between good and bad.”