Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force drug use study yields mostly promising results

Youth Task Force Coalition Coordinator Theresa Manning attributes the decline in underage drinking to a cultural shift on the Island. — Michael Cummo

In a recent interview with The Times, an Islander and recovering addict in his mid-20s summed up the drug culture on the Vineyard during his school years. “Everyone I knew started drinking in middle school and moved on to other substances in high school. We called it Martha’s Vineyard Reasonably High School,” he said.

While drugs and alcohol still are present in Island schools, preliminary results from the 2014 Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) give reason to be optimistic that historically high substance-use rates in Island schools are on the wane.

According to the 2014 YRBS, 35 percent of the 554 Island high school students polled reported using alcohol in the past 30 days. While that number might seem high to some, it is the first time since the YRBS was first administered in 2000 that the Vineyard talley was not above the state average, now 35.7 percent.

“In one of our federal grants, we said our goal was reducing alcohol use by 10 percent in five years,” Theresa Manning, coalition coordinator for the Youth Task Force (YTF), told The Times. “We just hit our five-year mark for that funding, and we’ve reduced it by 16 percent. In 2007, 55 percent of MVRHS students reported drinking alcohol at least once in the past 30 days.”

Survey results also show that 39 percent of Island high school students reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, an 11 percentage-point drop over the past two years.
Tobacco use — 8 percent — is a 4 percentage-point drop from 2012, and 2 percentage points below the state average.

Not all the numbers are positive, however. Although marijuana use has dropped, it remains 3 percentage points higher than the state average. Prescription drug abuse is at 9 percent, more than double the 2009 YRBS figure.

The middle school 2014 YRBS, which polled 251 students in grades seven and eight, showed no statistically significant changes from the 2012 YRBS, except for a slight uptick in marijuana use, where 6.9 percent reported marijuana use in the past 30 days, up from 4 percent in 2012. Alcohol use held steady at 7.3 percent, tobacco ticked up from 1 percent to 2 percent, and prescription drugs from 2.7 percent to 3.3 percent.

Countering the culture
“We live in a unique place and we have some unique challenges,” Youth Task Force Coalition Coordinator Jamie Vanderhoop said. “There’s not an issue with access to drugs and alcohol here on the Island. People come on vacation, they come to party, and that brings access to our young people.”

“We think the seasonal aspect of the Island is one of the biggest challenges to people making better choices,” Ms. Manning said. “Summertime becomes a very challenging time for our families on the Vineyard. Parents are working more, they’re less accessible to their kids because they have to be. Kids work at an early age here, and often in the service industry where there’s easy access to alcohol and other substances through their co-workers. In the summertime we become a community that really relies on partying for our economy, and our kids grow up with that somehow being the norm, so it skews it for them.“
“I can’t tell you how many people, even their 50s, say, ‘We always had 20-year-olds at our parties in high school,’” Ms. Manning said. “That doesn’t happen in most places. The blended age-group socialization is a big challenge here. It becomes that thing where parents get lured into, ‘It’s always been that way, it’s how it works here on the Island.’ It doesn’t have to be that way. We can have a higher standard, and I think people are hearing that, and that’s showing up in the numbers.”

Ms. Vanderhoop said that ironically, the 2014 YRBS also shows that students don’t believe their own progress. “We’ve heard from teachers that kids don’t believe the numbers, and they think that everyone is smoking pot and that the survey is a bunch of lies,” she said. “As part of our survey, we asked about behavior and what their perception of their peers behaviors are. We ask them if they had a drink of alcohol in the past 30 days. We also ask, ‘How many kids in your grade do you believe have had a drink?’ There’s a big misconception here. A lot of kids on the Vineyard believe most kids are using, when in fact, most kids are not. We’ve done the test three times in a row, and it came out within a couple of points each time. We know there are a lot of kids making healthy decisions. We want to make sure they know they’re not the only ones.”

Sea change
The Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force was created in 2004 as a response to alarmingly high drug and alcohol usage shown on the Island by the 2000 and 2002 YRBS. “There was a study done at Brandeis University that said you don’t change the culture of a place quickly, and it takes at least 10 years to have an impact,” Ms. Manning said. “It was important to look at this as a long-term project, because there are a lot of factors involved. It’s about helping kids make healthy choices earlier. It’s about empowering parents to tell their kids not to do it and encouraging parents to make healthy choices for themselves. It’s having the whole community look at how we can make this a healthier place for our kids.”

“Historically addiction has been a big issue here, but there’s also a lot of positives in this community,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “The Island is a very thoughtful community. Once we started the dialogue, the light bulbs went off: ‘We can do better. We can make better decisions for ourselves and our kids.’ We’re very fortunate to have the networking opportunities that we have on the Island. Some things that might get caught up in bureaucracy in other communities get done here.”

“We often speak with parents and point them in the direction of accessing resources to support them in parenting their teen,” Ms. Manning said. “Typically we start talking to parents when their children are in sixth or seventh grade, but we encourage parents of all-aged children to start talking to their young person. We say that you should talk early and talk often. We provide parents with a network called the Safe Homes Pledge Network, which is an online database of parents who have committed to monitoring social activities for their children and enables them to communicate with one another.”

Ms. Manning said making parents aware of the enormous legal liability they take on by abetting underage drinking has also helped create a shift in behavior. “An attorney who works for the law firm of Campbell and Campbell comes, pro bono, to make responsibility presentations to parents,” Ms. Manning said. “It’s amazing how many of them don’t realize the enormous legal risks they take when they enable underage drinking.” Videos of the presentation are available at all town libraries and on the YTF web site.

“The police departments have also been a huge help,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “Part of our funding for a state grant required increasing compliance checks at liquor stores. Initially the police worked with the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, but they became such strong partners we didn’t need outside help. Now we have a very good compliance rate.” Ms. Vanderhoop said the YTF also works with the local police on safe party-dispersal training. “Our police departments have been great about doing details during peak times like prom season, or over Thanksgiving, times when there’s likely to be a lot of underage drinking going on,” she said.

“Credit also has to go to the store owners,” Ms. Manning said. “Almost all of the stores that sell liquor have partnered with us, and they voluntarily invested in computerized I.D. checkers, which are very expensive.” Ms. Manning said that store owners have been receptive to the YTF “Sticker Shock” campaign, where brightly colored stickers that inform the risk of providing alcohol to underage drinkers are placed on bags. The YTF also provides local restaurants with Responsible Beverage Server Training.

They YTF has also established an anonymous tip line — 508-444-2YTF — where people can anonymously give information about underage drinking and drug use. “We’ve gotten calls from people who know of a house that’s a habitual party house,” Ms. Manning said. “We’ve been informed of a place where a party is about to happen, and we’ve given it to the appropriate police department. This way police can stop a party before it starts. Police would rather not bust kids.”

On the cusp
While the 2014 YRBS contains encouraging data, Ms. Manning and Ms. Vanderhoop know the challenges will continue as long as there are substances that can be abused.

“We’re very proud of what our community has come together to do, and we’re very aware that we have to stay on top of this if we’re going to maintain a decrease in these numbers,” Ms. Manning said. “We know opiates and heroin are on a huge rise in the 20 to 50-year-old age group, and trends like that tend to filter down to younger people. Prescription drug misuse is on the rise in our high school. It’s very much on our radar, and we’re addressing it.”

“We’ve placed Med Drop boxes at the Tisbury, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury police departments for people to properly dispose of their unused medications,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “We’re also providing local pharmacies with prescription bags that educate the consumer about responsible storage and disposal of unused medication.”

“I think the legalization changes with marijuana will also present new challenges in educating young people,” Ms. Manning said. “Nationally we’re seeing a rise in marijuana use, so we’re keeping an eye on it.”

What can parents do if they think their child is using drugs and/or alcohol? “If you asked me that question last year, I would have said go to the school adjustment counselor or to community services [MVCC],” Ms. Manning said. “But with the new Island Wide Youth collaborative, on-Island treatment is available, and there’s a highly qualified group of people working together on each case. We’re on the cusp of some big steps in addiction prevention and treatment on the Vineyard.”