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In Marshfield, new concern about teen drinking

In a survey of Marshfield High students, a greater percentage reported drinking alcohol compared to the state average.

Dina Rudick, Globe Staff/file 2004

In a survey of Marshfield High students, a greater percentage reported drinking alcohol compared to the state average.

A recently released survey of Marshfield students has generated concern in the community about teenagers’ alcohol consumption and parents who condone in-home drinking.

The 2012 survey of grades 7, 9, and 11 showed that, compared with results from a similar survey of students around the state, more Marshfield ninth- and 11th-graders had consumed an alcoholic drink in the last 30 days. Substantially more Marshfield high-schoolers than in the state survey had ridden with a driver who had been drinking, and more than half of juniors reported attending a party where parents were present and aware of underage drinking.

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Many communities administer a survey of students’ risk behavior and use the results to inform educational content. After Norwood High School’s 2006 survey, the school planned a forum to speak to parents about the risks of hosting parties where students had access to alcohol. In 2010, a Hingham survey showed that well more than one-quarter of freshmen and juniors had attended such a party in the previous three months.

Another risk-behavior survey, conducted every two years in schools northwest of Boston by Emerson Hospital in Concord, has shown that although alcohol and tobacco use have declined, youths also engage in other risky behaviors, such as texting while driving.

In Marshfield, school officials said the new survey shows a need to place more emphasis on alcohol-related issues in health and safety seminars, and a need to communicate with parents about the social host law.

Kate Tracey, chairwoman of the Marshfield School Committee, called the prevalence of alcohol at parent-approved parties “a little shocking.” “The parents being at home kind of stood out,” she said.

Twenty-nine percent of Marshfield ninth-graders and 58 percent of 11th-graders said in the survey that they had been to a party where parents were present and knew that youth were drinking.

Parents probably believe they are keeping their children safe by allowing them to drink in the house, Tracey said, but their actions are against the law. The social host law in Massachusetts prohibits anyone from providing, supplying, or giving alcohol to minors who are not their children or grandchildren. It also takes a step further, prohibiting adults from allowing underage drinking on their property, even if the adults did not supply the alcohol.

Marybeth Zeigler, director of comprehensive health for the Marshfield public schools, said underage drinking in social-host situations is an issue that should concern the whole community. Parents should make sure they know where their teens are spending their time, she said.

“I think it’s all of our responsibilities to make sure our students are safe,” she said. “I don’t think we’re sending the right message when we say it’s OK to drink at this house because parents are present. It’s still illegal, under 21, to drink alcohol.”

Marshfield first added the question to its student survey in 2011, and she was surprised that the number was so high, she said.

At the state level, the comparable Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey does not ask the same question about social hosts. It does, however, ask high school students about their drinking, smoking, illegal drug use, and other behaviors. The survey is given in odd-numbered years.

Since 2007, it has been administered in conjunction with another measure, the Massachusetts Youth Health Survey, which reaches middle school as well as high school students. In 2011 the combined instruments surveyed 5,371 high school students at 54 public schools, and the youth health survey included 3,554 middle school students at 83 schools, according to a joint report, “2011 Health and Risk Behaviors of Massachusetts Youth.”

In the state report, high school data include grades 9 through 12, whereas high school data from Marshfield represent grades 9 and 11 separately.

By Grade 9, Marshfield students were more likely to have had a drink within the last 30 days than students in grades 9 through 12 in the state data. Forty-one percent of Marshfield ninth-graders and 60 percent of 11th-graders said they had consumed at least one alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days, compared with 40 percent of high schoolers around the state.

Numbers were also higher in Marshfield with regard to riding with a driver who had been drinking. Thirty-two percent of Marshfield freshmen and 37 percent of juniors said in the survey that in the last 30 days they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol, whereas only 23 percent of high school students across the state responded affirmatively to that question.

Zeigler noted, however, that the question does not differentiate between riding with a parent who had one drink and riding with a person who is intoxicated.

The portion of local students who had a drink in the last 30 days in 2012 showed only slight differences from 2011, she said. That year, 44 percent of freshmen and 58 percent of juniors reported having a drink.

Marshfield provides several educational programs that address health and risk behaviors, she said, including a mandatory pre-prom seminar given by the Marshfield Police Department for juniors and their parents. In another program, high school students help health educators speak to parents of middle and high school students.

Tracey said part of the reason Marshfield conducts its own survey is so as its needs change it knows where to tweak programs. Issues identified in last year’s survey are likely to receive more emphasis in upcoming health courses, she said.

On the positive side, Zeigler said, fewer Marshfield students said they are smoking, which coincides with a national trend. Only 12 percent of seventh-graders said they had tried smoking tobacco in 2012, compared with 22 percent the previous year, she said. At the high school level, 30 percent of freshmen and 53 percent of juniors said they had tried a cigarette, cigar, or pipe.

In the state survey, 10 percent of middle-schoolers in Grades 6 through 8 had tried cigarettes in their lifetime; 39 percent of high-schoolers said they had tried cigarettes.

With regard to marijuana, 43 percent of high-schoolers said they had tried it across the state, compared with 31 percent of Marshfield freshmen and 70 percent of Marshfield juniors.

Overall, use of both tobacco and alcohol has declined among teenagers, and students are older when they first try them, according to Lauren Greene, a program coordinator with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The decline in smoking has been sustained for some time, she said. She attributed the change to educational programs and better awareness among the general public about the dangers.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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