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Middle schoolers' risky behavior drops in Somerville

Posted by Travis Andersen  September 29, 2009 11:33 AM

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The city has released data from last spring's survey of risky behavior - including drug use, sexual activity, and fighting - culled from 818 Somerville students in grades 6-8.

The School Department conducted the study for the fourth time since 2003, in collaboration with the Cambridge Health Alliance, a substance abuse prevention group in Somerville, and a nonprofit research firm in based in Burlington.

Nearly all of the data suggests that middle schoolers are taking fewer harmful risks than earlier respondents. Among the highlights, 2 percent of middle schoolers reported binge drinking within weeks of taking the survey, down from 5 percent in 2007. Four percent reported smoking marijuana, compared to 8 percent in 2007.

“The 2009 results demonstrate the positive impact of [district-wide] programs, family emphasis on healthy behaviors, and the youth programs throughout the [city]," Superintendent Anthony Pierantozzi said in a statement.

Yet middle schoolers appear to be hearing fewer warnings against substance abuse, despite the good news on usage. About 54 percent of students said they heard warnings against drug use in school, down from roughly 69 percent in 2007. Warnings have declined on every survey since 2003, according to the data.

Reports of violence also have decreased. Ten percent of middle schoolers reported fighting on school property last spring, down from 13 percent in 2007. Two percent reported threats or injuries from weapons at school, compared to 3 percent in 2007. Fifteen percent of students said they were bullied on their way to or from school, a 1 percent drop from 2007.

Cory Mashburn, head of Somerville Cares About Prevention, which helped administer the survey, said the city still has work to do, despite the report of fewer fisticuffs.

"[The] percentage of those who reported fighting on school property was at 10 [percent], which is a drop, but still a level that needs improvement,” Mashburn said in a statement.

Sexual violence levels have also improved. Two percent of middle schoolers reported being tricked, pressured, or forced into having sex, down from 3 percent in 2007. Ten percent of students reported unwanted sexual touching, compared to 11 percent two years ago.

In one of the few negative trends listed in the data, 6 percent of middle schoolers reported physical abuse by a relative, a 1-percent increase from 2007. The rate had stood at 5 percent since 2003.

City educators and health specialists plan to use the data as a tool for developing new prevention programs and refining existing policies.

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