November 26, 2012: At the meeting of the Belmont School Community on November 20, we released the Report on the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered to Belmont students in grades 7 through 12 last April. The survey is an instrument development by the Northeast Health Resources in Haverhill and is used by many Massachusetts school districts to gauge the emotional and social health of students. NHR bases its surveys on instruments developed at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are inevitable limitations to self-reporting surveys. I believe the YRBS versions are as good as any, but I have concerns about the length of the surveys (99 questions on the high school survey; 71 questions on the middle school version), the possibility of students losing interest in the instrument and caricaturing or exaggerating responses, and variations in the administration of the surveys. Furthermore, some of the questions are without a context and can be ambiguous.
All the reservations aside, the survey provides a community—not just the school district—information about the health and habits of students to complement anecdotal and other social evidence within a town and the state. In light of the responses, the community can bring to the fore concerns about student behaviors that are harmful or self-destructive in order to engage community-wide efforts at prevention, intervention, and recovery. There are student behaviors revealed by the survey that are of particular concern for citizens of Belmont. Students report an increase in cyber-bullying. Suicidal ideation affects 12% of middle school students and 11% of high school students. Both tobacco and alcohol use remain problems although there is a reported decrease since 2010. Use of illegal drugs and alcohol tends to increase as students become older.
In consultation with the Advisory Committee on Health and Safety, the School Department hosts several forums and presentations to help all citizens—teachers, parents, students alike—to confront dangerous behaviors. On December 5, for example, 6:00 pm, Chenery Auditorium, Dr. Elizabeth Englander will present a workshop on prevention and intervention strategies to deal with bullying. In January, the Advisory Committee plans to offer additional professional workshops and community forums to address some of the more prominent concerns that arise from the survey report.
A copy of the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey is available on the School Department website. Hard copies are also available on request from the central office of the School Department, 644 Pleasant Street.