Teen smoking
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A 15-year-old high school student in Massachusetts uses a vaping device near her school’s campus. Schools in the Pikes Peak region are tackling vaping, which has become popular among teens.

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Manitou Springs High School junior Hailey Matas twice has answered a plethora of questions on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a statewide assessment of teen attitudes and behaviors conducted every two years.

She’s given responses on how she handles stress, her sexual habits, whether she uses drugs or smokes, if she’s been bullied, whether she’s considered harming herself, if she eats enough vegetables, if she has people in her life she can turn to and a host of other questions.

This year, she’s involved in helping figure out the age-old problem: How to convince kids to avoid risky behavior.

“The survey is important so we can see what’s really going on without knowing specifically who it involves and help eliminate problems,” Hailey said. “It’s important to help students feel like they’re understood.”

Hailey, 16, is a member of her school’s Teen Advocates for a Well Community, a group of students who do social media promotions and events tied to students’ social, emotional and physical well-being.

Involving students in finding solutions to unhealthy teen lifestyles is just one way schools are using the Healthy Kids survey, an initiative of the state departments of Public Health and Environment, Education and Human Services; the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; and a community advisory committee.

Middle school and high school students took the latest rendition of the voluntary survey in the fall of 2017, and districts received lengthy raw data reports in September.

Administrators in school districts statewide now are dissecting the responses and deciding how to use the information to provide preventive and motivational programs encouraging students to avoid bad behaviors.

Results from last year’s survey are encouraging, local educators say, because many concerning adolescent actions, ranging from cigarette smoking to texting while driving, are declining.

They see that as an indication that school and community-based awareness campaigns are working.

“Overall, we were really pleased to find the data affirmed our efforts around substance abuse prevention and mental health promotion, said Lisa Zimprich, director of special education for Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8.

The number of incidents in which district students reported being bullied was lower than the state percentage, she said, and middle school students indicated lower use of and more difficulty accessing illegal substances than the state numbers.

While middle school students identify as struggling with mental health issues, the percentage of those saying they have an adult they can go to with a problem exceeded the state, showing strong protective factors.

“Schools use the data around student connectedness to put pretty innovative practices in place that they’ve seen a positive outcome from,” Zimprich said.

For example, D-8 hosted in conjunction with Widefield School District 3 a mental health event in October that was valuable because students helped plan it and led small-group discussions, organizers said.

Alcohol still most popular

Students fill out the Healthy Kids questionnaire anonymously. Not everyone takes it; schools usually distribute it randomly to a sampling of middle and high school students, who can also opt out.

One interesting thing about the confidential survey, Hailey said, is that some misconceptions about teen behavior prove to be untrue.

For example, “There’s a lot of perception on how many people in this school smoke weed or something like that,” she said, “but the results show otherwise; not everyone in the whole school does it.”

Alcohol remains the most popular illegal substance of choice among El Paso County adolescents, with 28 percent of high school students having used in the past month.

Electronic cigarettes, or vaping, are second, with 23 percent usage.

Marijuana consumption among local teens has not changed since 2013 and stands at 22.2 percent usage over 30 days, compared with 19.4 percent statewide.

“Everybody anticipated a huge increase of youth usage with legalization, but our results have stayed flat,” said Lauren Cikara, a community and school specialist with the Colorado School of Public Health who does public presentations on the data.

The survey became controversial in recent years because of parental concerns about student privacy and the seemingly intrusive nature of some of the questions. Parents also wondered about the accuracy of students self-reporting risky behaviors and thoughts.

The Colorado Board of Education considered eliminating the survey, and many school districts chose not to participate. In 2015, there were not enough student respondents in El Paso County to yield countywide results.

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument initially decided to not offer the questionnaire because of parent complaints and concerns.Spokeswoman Julie Stephen said the district based its decision on a desire to “prioritize instructional time.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of events, programs and activities for students and parents centered on social and mental wellness, she said.

“It’s something we’ve been focusing on for a long time,” she said, adding that the district uses other school climate gauges.

Cikara said survey recruitment in 2016 emphasized the benefits, including districts using the data to apply for state and federal grants to fund follow-up programs.

“Schools were finding they really didn’t know what their needs were in terms of students navigating depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse and other issues,” Cikara said, “and a lot of districts were missing out on grants coming because they didn’t have comparison data to the region or state.”

The efforts resulted in higher participation last year, statewide and in El Paso County, where about 2,000 high school students took the survey and an unreleased number of middle schoolers.

A surprising spike from the most recent survey, Cikara said, was high school students’ use of electronic cigarettes, or vaping. Colorado’s teen use of 27 percent is double the nation.

The disturbing trend led to Gov. John Hickenlooper to declare a “vape-free November,” with special events designed to reduce youth vaping.

Schools are attacking the problem by changing policies around electronic vaping, in the way they did for chewing tobacco, Cikara said, and working with local health departments on prevention campaigns and education about the dangers of vaping.

“Educators are navigating that every single day because these devices are so tiny,” Cikara said.

While several El Paso County teens died by suicide in October, and the county had suicide clusters in 2015 and 2016, the local numbers are “not a ton higher than what we’re seeing across the state,” Cikara said.

The survey showed 7 percent of students statewide attempted suicide, compared with 8.7 percent in El Paso County. But 36 percent of El Paso County students responded that they felt sad or hopeless in recent weeks, compared with 31 percent statewide.

“While teen suicide feels like it’s much higher in El Paso County, it’s pretty on par for what we’re seeing across the state and across the nation,” Cikara said.

To further help schools, the survey team in January will start promoting Smart Source, a building survey that includes elementary schools and can be used to assess policies, programs and practices, and make adjustments.

“So if there are health gaps in a school, do you have support mechanisms, for example, student access to a full-time counselor, and a good referral process?” Cikara said. “It’s a complementary data point.”

Having trusted adults in students’ lives is an important protective factor, she said, and 81 percent of students in El Paso County said they had someone to talk to if they were feeling sad or hopeless. The statewide number was 83 percent.

Seventy percent of El Paso County high schoolers said they had grades in the A and B ranges, and 66 percent said they participate in extracurricular activities, which are other proactive measures.

Cikara recommends schools share the data with not only staff, students, parents and school boards but also the broader community and agencies such as the local health department.

“Sometimes we forget parents and students and others can be part of those solutions,” she said. “That’s where a lot of the magic happens, where new ideas come into play.”

‘Important, worthy, loved’

Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument is presenting a Connection and Conversation event on Tuesday, as a follow-up to the district’s community Wellness Expo in October and recent student deaths by suicide.

“We are hosting this event to provide an additional opportunity for our community to come together to discuss coping strategies for common teen pressures, tools for establishing healthy relationships, the effects of social media on the brain, and other social, emotional and mental health concerns,” said Principal Anthony Karr. “When we share different perspectives and resources, we find common ground and healthy solutions.”

Manitou Springs School District 14’s student council held a DriveSmart event last Thursday to emphasize the importance of not drinking, not texting and not being high while driving and to encourage seat belt use.

“You are important, worthy, loved,” was written in chalk on the steps leading to the commons area, where students and parents tried walking a course while wearing goggles that simulate alcohol and drug impairment.

“It gives me a headache,” sophomore Caden Salladay said after doing the course. “It’s a good way to help people notice how important it is to not drink and drive or drive distracted.”

Manitou Springs is one of the few districts in El Paso County that has consistently administered the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and now has nearly 10 years of data, said Laurie Wood, chief instructional officer and director of the district’s Partners for Healthy Choices program.

The district doesn’t do random sampling; all middle and high school students are asked to fill out the questionnaire, which has about a 92 percent participation rate.

Both drinking and driving and texting and driving have declined steadily since 2009, the first year D-14 students took the survey, Wood said.

“Kids are well-educated beyond school by families, communities and public health to understand the safety of making a phone call for a ride or designating a driver,” she said. “So you see the compounding effects of messaging.”

Texting and driving among Manitou Springs students dropped from 44.2 percent in the fall of 2015 to 29.4 percent last fall. Drinking and driving fell from 20 percent in 2009 to 12.7 percent in 2017.

And seat belt use has improved, from 5.2 percent of students not wearing seat belts in 2015 to 2.8 percent not wearing seat belts in 2017.

Marijuana use also has decreased from 28 percent in 2009 to 15.5 percent in the 2017 round.

Wood is a member of the state-level executive committee for the survey, which she describes as “a powerful tool,” and “one indicator” of what’s going on in the minds of teens.

“We believe the survey does give us valuable data,” she said. “It’s one window into a glimpse of the behaviors and actions of our youth that we wouldn’t get any other way.”

A community coalition of more than 20 people representing various groups will study Manitou Springs’ data and offer suggestions on future tactics.

“One of the standards for doing this work is you don’t do things to kids but with kids,” Wood said, “which is why we bring all the voices to the table to support kids and families.”

While many statistics have declined significantly, there are still kids participating in the risky behaviors, she said.

“We’d like to see them even lower,” Wood said. “It’s still too many kids.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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