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From pot to sex, Colorado's Healthy Kids Survey seeks answers from students on attitudes, behaviors

September 21, 2017 Updated: September 22, 2017 at 5:06 pm
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photo - A woman smokes marijuana during the annual 4/20 marijuana gathering at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
A woman smokes marijuana during the annual 4/20 marijuana gathering at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) 

After Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 and retail shops started opening in the small town of Manitou Springs, school officials wondered if they would see an increase in student use.

The 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed the answer was "no."

"Our numbers were flat, just like the state," said Laurie Wood, director for Partners for Healthy Choices in Manitou Springs School District 14.

Four out of five Colorado high school students indicated on the 2015 poll that they had not used marijuana in the last 30 days, the same rate since 2013.

"We're interested to see what this year's survey tells us," Wood said. "This perception that what adults do in Manitou can be generalized to our kids is not accurate."

On Friday, middle and high school students in Manitou Springs again will anonymously answer questions about drug and alcohol consumption, eating habits, truancy, weapons use, incidents of bullying, suicide attempts, bicycle helmet usage, supportive adults in their lives and other behaviors. The high school Healthy Kids Survey also includes a section on sexual orientation and intercourse, including the use of condoms.

Conducted every two years by the Community, Epidemiology & Program Evaluation Group at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the survey continues to be a prickly subject.

Some parents protested in the spring of 2015 to the State Board of Education that survey was too invasive, explicit, inappropriate and that they were concerned about data privacy. The board voted not to change the system.

The surveys have been given to a sampling of students since 1991 and were significantly expanded in 2013, as a joint effort of the state's departments of education, health and human services. The intent: to identify trends and start school and community programs to address health concerns of adolescents.

But some school districts have refused to distribute the survey to students.

That's still the case.

The Pikes Peak region's second-largest district, Academy D-20, won't be administering the questionnaire at school this semester, said spokeswoman Allison Cortez.

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 schools in Monument also are not participating this year, spokeswoman Julie Stephen said.

Neither is the district's sole charter school, Monument Academy, a K-8 school with 1,024 students.

"Our parents made it pretty clear back in 2015 that they felt it was an intrusive questionnaire," said Executive Director Don Griffin.

Statewide, some 17,000 sixth through 12th grade students filled it out two years ago. The number amounted to about 60 percent overall participation from schools and students.

Participation appears to be better this year, said Ashley Brooks-Russell, an associate professor and survey leader for the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

"Part of that is the lack of school board controversy this year," she said, "and we have two full-time staff, which we haven't had before. They started recruiting last spring, and it's really paying off."

Schools can administer the survey anytime during this fall semester. Most choose October or November, Brooks-Russell said, but several have already been handed in.

At this point, the program is on track to reach 80 percent overall participation, which would produce a response rate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high quality, Brooks-Russell said. The organization helps fund the program, as do tobacco and marijuana taxes in Colorado.

The survey is voluntary. Parents can sign a waiver removing their children from the survey; otherwise, students receive the questionnaire. At just a handful of schools, students must return a form to participate.

Because the use of e-cigarette products skyrocketed, as indicated in 2015 results, this year's version has more questions about that topic, Brooks-Russell said. There also are additional questions about protective factors, such as having adults as mentors, school connectedness, family bonds and home support.

"The public health field is moving toward looking for protective factors across all negative health behaviors," Brooks-Russell said.

Suicide attempts and completions also were flagged as high statewide and an area of concern in 2015, she said, and minority LGBT students were identified as being at higher risk for engaging in negative behaviors.

At some schools, a random sampling of students are selected to participate. Others, such as Manitou Springs High School and Middle School, hand it out to every student.

Schools and districts will receive the results in a few months; a full state report will be released in May or June, Brooks-Russell said.

Educators and community organizations often use the information to develop new programs to address concerns that emerged.

Based on answers students in Manitou Springs D-14 gave in 2015, the district started a new social media awareness campaign called Teen Advocates for a Well Community, Wood said.

While students' marijuana usage didn't appear to be on the rise, students' perception about the harmfulness of pot seemed to be changing, with more kids thinking it isn't that dangerous of a drug.

That triggered a response.

"The fear was that if children start perceiving marijuana is not harmful and isn't a bad choice, if that trend continued, in several years we'd possibly see use increase," Wood said. "It's illegal if you're under 21, and research indicates it affects kids' brain development."

The district obtained a $500,000grant over five years to use platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to reach students who need support to stay away from drugs and alcohol, build healthy relationships, practice good nutrition and strengthen mental health.

This is the second year of the program, and 18 students are participating, up from 12 last year, said Jane Squires, associate director of Partners for Healthy Choices.

The Healthy Kids Survey also has been important for Teller County, said Lisa Noble, prevention services manager for Teller County Department of Human Services.

"Because we had that data, we have made sustainable changes to make families and children and youth have better lives," she said.

For example, Woodland Park's park and recreation department added more youth programs, after students said there weren't enough extracurricular activities being offered, Noble said.

"We've used it to look at the risk in our community and assure we were putting the funding where it needs to go," she said. "We were very systematic about using the data to apply for grants."

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