By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008; Page VA01
Some middle and high school youth in Alexandria are smoking, drinking and using marijuana at rates that exceed national numbers, drawing a "disturbing picture of youth substance abuse," a recent report found.
The report, by George Mason University researchers, was released last month by Alexandria's Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. It is based on data from more than 3,000 Alexandria public school students, as well interviews, focus groups and hundreds of online surveys of adolescents, parents, police officers, government officials and other community members.
"What we wanted to do was really get a good handle of what were the rates of use throughout the city with our middle and high school students but also get under the issues to find out what were some of the reasons behind the uses," said Allen Lomax, the coalition's chairman.
The report found that not only are Alexandria's adolescents using what are known as gateway substances at higher rates, they are starting younger than students elsewhere.
In middle school, Hispanic and black youths were found to have higher lifetime rates of alcohol and marijuana use than their national counterparts. While 39 percent of youths nationwide admit to having had alcohol, for Hispanic and black youths in Alexandria, those numbers jumped to 54 percent and 45 percent, respectively. The two groups' use of marijuana, 19 percent for Hispanic students and 16 percent for black students, also exceeded the national 14 percent rate.
Asian Americans joined them in exceeding the 22 percent national rate for cigarette use.
"Research evidence suggests if you start early, you are more likely to move on with more severe problems with substances," said Jerome Short, who wrote the report along with Christianne Esposito-Smythers.
Short said Alexandria's youth are more vulnerable, in part, because of the city's proximity to the District, where these substances are more readily available, and because the high cost of living forces many parents to work long hours.
"We believe there are a number of middle school youth who are relatively unsupervised after school," Short said.
Although minority students showed the most troublesome trends at the lower grades, white students join them at the high school level.
The report says that 25 percent of white students in Alexandria were found to have used marijuana, compared with 20 percent of white students nationally. About 34 percent of Alexandria's white students also reported heavy alcohol use, defined as having five or more drinks in a row, compared with 30 percent of their national counterparts.
"Many youth agreed that in high school 'everyone drinks alcohol' and 'life is boring without weed,'" the report says. "Some stated that it was easier to get marijuana than alcohol."
Short couldn't explain why substance use among minority students seemed to taper off in high school but said he suspects many were under-represented in the sample. They could have dropped out or been absent the day surveys were distributed at school, he said.
The report found that many youth thought that they would not be caught by their parents or police if they drank or smoked marijuana, and that if they did, the consequences would be minimal.
The majority of the youth said it was "sort of easy" or "very easy" to get alcohol. They told of getting alcohol from home, stealing from stores, using fake identification and asking older friends, family members and strangers to buy it on their behalf. Some adults who participated in the study characterized substance abuse as not a problem but "part of normal development."
Chanel Smith, a junior at T.C. Williams, said she knows of students who smoke marijuana a few times a day and "don't see it as a big deal."
"Their parents know that they smoke," she added, "but I don't know if they told them to stop or not."
As a counselor aide with the city's Community Services Board, it is Smith's job to talk to students about the dangers of substance abuse. Still, she said, she was surprised to see that a "little area" such as Alexandria could beat national rates.
"There are people doing it," she said. "But then there's a lot of people who are not doing it."
One of the recommendations of the report is for parents and the school system to consistently enforce consequences for substance abuse, as well as provide rewards for students who abstain. Other recommendations include developing skill-building workshops to help parents talk to their children, educating the community on the report's findings and continuing the effort to survey students, in public and private schools, over time to gauge the effects of prevention programs.
Lomax said the coalition will reach out to the community, meeting with various groups over the next few months. Starting soon, a sign will appear on a Virginia Paving vacuum truck that reads, "Youth Substance Abuse: It's No Party."
"The basic philosophy behind the coalition was this isn't just a parent problem," Lomax said.
The coalition, which was formed in 2007 as part of the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria, is an alliance of more than 80 community members, including students, parents, policymakers, law enforcement officials and health and recreation workers. The group recently received a five-year Drug Free Communities grant for about $600,000, which Lomax said will help with the effort.
"We have a problem. In some cases, it's a greater problem than we anticipated," he said. "But working together, we can start making improvements throughout the community."
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