A comprehensive survey of Belmont Upper Middle School and High School students reveals that alcohol remains a significant problem especially among upper classmen while the number of serious suicide attempts have risen sharply at the middle school in the past two years.
The results of the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey – taken by 95 percent of students in the 7th and 8th grade at the Chenery Middle School and 84 percent at Belmont High School – was released to the public by the Belmont School Department at the meeting of the town's School Committee Tuesday, Nov. 20.
In the report, more than 56 percent of high school senior girls and 61 percent of senior boys reported having at least one drink at one sitting in the past month, while more than a third of all high school students, 9th to 12th grade, reported the same level of use.
And a quarter of all high school students have participated in "binge" drinking – where they have consumed five or more drinks in a couple of hours – in the past month with two in five seniors taking part in the activity.
The report also showed that three in ten of all high school student but one in two seniors attended a party held in Belmont where teens could get their hands on alcohol.
View the report as a pdf file on this web page.
Belmont's total 12th grade level of 60 percent alcohol use in a month exceeds the state-wide level of 53 percent among seniors as reported in the 2011 state Youth Risk Behaviour study released in June.
Yet that amount of usage is actually a drop in the percentages seen in 2010 when more than two in five students would partake in alcohol in the past 30 days.
"I'd be hard pressed to say what casual relation there is for that," said Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston.
"Maybe there was a lot of raised eyebrows" from the past study in 2010 and parents became more precautionary and took steps at intervention, Kingston said.
In addition, the schools, along with the Belmont Police and Middlesex County District Attorney, have been targeting parents on their roles and responsibilities supervising parties where alcohol and underage teens are present.
At the Middle School, more than one in eight (15 percent) 8th grade boys have had an alcoholic drink in the past month, compared to just about six percent of 8th grade girls.
The most stark rise in unhealthy activities was in suicide where more than 12 percent of the middle schoolers reported having serious thought of committing suicide, up from 8 percent two years earlier. Among the 7th and 8th graders, 6 percent made serious plans to kill themselves and half of those actually tried to commit suicide.
At the High School, 10 percent of students seriously contemplated suicide while 8 percent actually attempted the act at least once. The greatest jump in attempts occurred in girls between 11th and 12th grades when attempts doubled from 4.5 percent to 9 percent.
"This is troubling but also a chance to commit to prevention, intervention and recovery," said Kingston on the suicide numbers which he called "awfully high."
The results of the study will be sent to the staff of both schools and to their Health and Safety Advisory Committees.
Yet while the survey should concern the entire community, the report is a "snapshot" of student activity, he noted.
"Let's not anguish about the report. The biggest concern parents should take away from this study is with their own (children) and communicating with them on what is reported," Kingston told Belmont Patch after the meeting.
School Committee member Kevin Cunningham said the results should not be only a template for changing behavior within the schools but "a community-wide" question needing answers and hopes to see a scheduled January meeting on the survey advertised to the general public.
On the positive side, tobacco use continues to fall (only 8 percent of high schoolers smoke compared to 16 percent statewide) as has marijuana (from one-in-four two years ago to one-in-five this year) while more students (seven of ten at the high school) are physically active for at least 20 minutes three times a week, a much higher rate than national figures.
Sexually activity among high schools more than doubles between their sophomore and junior years, with those students reporting that they have become sexually active going from 13 percent in 10th grade to 35 percent as juniors. Nearly a third of female and half of boys are sexually active by their senior year in High School.
A third of middle school students reported they were bullied at least once while that number decreased to one-in-five at the high school.