Survey: Drug and Alcohol Use Among Berkeley Teens Is Double National Average

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 07:09:00 PM

Drug and alcohol use among Berkeley public school students is twice the national average, according to a survey cited by Berkeley Unified School District officials at a recent Berkeley Board of Education meeting. 

Sponsored by the California Department of Education, the California Healthy Kids Survey is given every two years to fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th graders to reduce risky behaviors and help school districts identify areas for intervention. 

This is the first year that the survey results—which are widely used by many public agencies, including the city’s Public Health Department—were presented to the school board by district officials. 

The 45-minute survey, which focuses on substance abuse, violence and safety, fulfills the requirements of the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. 

Dr. Rebecca Cheung, the district’s director of evaluation and assessment, informed the school board before the presentation that the survey was considered to be most accurate when it had a participation rate of 60 percent or more. 

Berkeley Unified only met that target in ninth grade.  

Cheung expressed the least confidence about data from the fifth-grade sampling since it showed the lowest participation rate (43 percent) compared with the seventh (48 percent), ninth (68 percent) and 11th (52 percent) grades. 

“We have striven to ensure participation since we first started administering the test [in 2002] but we still have some improvements that need to be made,” she said. 

As compared with state and national figures, twice as many Berkeley ninth (31 percent) and 11th graders (54 percent) were drunk or high on school property, according to data self-reported in the spring 2008 survey, and twice as many students in the district reported smoking marijuana in the preceding 30 days. 

The local data also showed that cigarette, drug and alcohol use among students increased from fifth to 11th grades, and there was higher consumption of alcohol, except at the fifth-grade level, than in the rest of the state and the nation . 

According to a Berkeley High School Parent, Teacher and Student Association newsletter sent out by PTSA President Mark Van Kriekan, last year’s survey results for Berkeley High were fairly consistent with those of 2006. 

One bright spot in the survey was that relatively fewer 11th- and ninth-graders—about 10 percent—said that they had smoked a cigarette in the last 30 days, something district officials said correlates with the non-smoking culture encouraged in the city. 

The survey results also show that: 

• 52 percent of 11th-graders and 39 percent of ninth-graders said they had consumed alcohol over the preceding 30 days. 

• 33 percent of 11th-graders and 21 percent of ninth-graders said they had engaged in binge drinking—five or more drinks over a few hours—in the previous 30 days. 

• 46 percent of 11th-graders and 30 percent of ninth-graders reported having used marijuana in the previous 30 days. 

• 5 percent of 11th-graders and 6 percent of ninth-graders reported carrying a gun to school over the previous 12 months. 

• 9 percent of both 11th- and ninth- graders reported that they were members of a gang. 

• 45 percent of 11th-graders and 38 percent of ninth-graders reported that they have a caring relationship with an adult at Berkeley High. 

District Superintendent Bill Huyett and a majority of the school board members expressed concern about the high use of alcohol and drugs by students. 

“The conclusions are not surprising,” said school board member John Selawsky. “We have been hearing about these things for years.” 

He added that the district needed to improve participation rates for the California Healthy Kids Survey, especially since it was administered by teachers during class hours. 

“I think we need to stress the importance of the survey,” said student board member Eve Shames, a Berkeley High senior. “Students have no idea how it’s used. They just do it for fun. If the students know how the state evaluates the data, they will take it seriously.” 

Some school board members said that the high use of alcohol and drugs among students could stem from the fact that the city is more tolerant of drug culture than other places. 

“There’s a certain agreement that drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana is OK,” said board member Shirley Issel. “This is an adult problem that adults have to grapple with. There needs to be a conscious effort on our parts to adopt an approach to deal with it. I know the City of Berkeley is eager to help us, but the high school is going to have to open up to the community and be more frank about who’s using what and when ... A fear of this survey often keeps principals from discussing things openly.” 

Huyett agreed that the survey had raised a red flag for the district, adding that it was time to create a comprehensive plan about how to tackle this issue at the schools. 

“The results might not be a surprise to many of you, but it’s a surprise to me,” said Huyett, who took over from former superintendent Michele Lawrence in February 2008. “Drug and alcohol use is off the charts. This data, I think, is quite valid, frankly. It really couldn’t be that high without acceptance, and by that I mean parental acceptance, and I don’t mean to be critical, but school and teacher acceptance. We become too accepting of this condition.” 

Huyett said that when students come to school stoned, it interferes with their learning abilities. 

“Clearly in our city and our schools we have a drug problem,” he said. “It’s a critical issue for Berkeley Unified. We need to come back with plans and presentations on what we are going to do to change the present culture on drug and alcohol use.” 

To view the California Healthy Kids Survey for Berkeley Unified and other school districts in the state, see www.wested.org. 

To download the Berkeley Unified School District’s assessment and evaluation of specific areas of the survey, see www.berkeley.k12.ca.us