Risky behavior on the Main Line

A student survey reveals some problems, but much to praise.

A detailed survey of more than 5,100 students at 10 Main Line middle and high schools, released yesterday, painted an unvarnished portrait of growing up in the mostly affluent Montgomery County suburbs. And it wasn't all pretty.

Many youths said they regularly engaged in drinking, drug use, sexual activity, and other risky behaviors. Yet the Lower Merion-Narberth Community Coalition, which released the data, was determinedly optimistic as it stressed the need to celebrate youths who make good decisions and do the right thing.

The October survey, a follow-up to a similar effort in 2000, found adolescent life improved in many areas, which community leaders partly attributed to new programs on bullying, stress, eating disorders and other issues.

Main Line student behavior and attitudes fell mostly within national norms, though it lagged on perceptions of parental rules and consequences.

In a presentation to about 150 community leaders and students at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, the coalition said it planned to develop a "social-norming campaign" that shoots down the "everybody does it" rationale by highlighting youths who reject risky behaviors. A similar effort in Upper Bucks was successful, organizers said.

Special attention will be paid to the 65 percent of seventh to 12th graders who reported that they do not use alcohol on a regular basis.

Some students were skeptical about whether such efforts would work. "Once you reach high school, I'm not sure how many people would change their opinions," said Peter Bastian, 16, a junior at the Haverford School, which participated in the anonymous in-class survey.

Students turn to alcohol, in part, to escape the "amount of pressure kids feel in these communities," Bastian said.

The survey, designed by the Search Institute, an educational research consultancy in Minneapolis, was also given at the public Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools and Bala Cynwyd and Welsh Valley Middle Schools, and the private Episcopal Academy and Agnes Irwin, Friends' Central, Shipley and Baldwin Schools.

Compared with 2000, more Main Line students possessed the attributes necessary for success, including school support (45 percent), clear rules (54 percent), responsible friends (69 percent), and optimism about their future (76 percent).

"Regardless of what might not be there, there is a lot there," said Lee Rush, executive director of justCommunity, a Quakertown nonprofit group that consults on youth-development programs and has formed a mentoring alliance with the Lower Merion-Narberth group. "You've made some significant gains since 2000," he told the community leaders.

The 156-item survey tracked 40 assets that encourage children to thrive, said Peter C. Scales of the Search Institute. The survey is not considered a scientific poll, but a tool to assess how students perceive their world.

"Are these 40 [assets] the be-all and end-all? No," Scales said. "Do they capture the great majority of what research says kids need to grow up healthy and successful? Yes."

Based on students' answers, Lower Merion and Narberth scored 21.5 assets, up from 19.5 in 2000. The national average is 18.

The coalition tacked on questions concerning drinking and drug use for the first time.

Though most students did not imbibe regularly, among 12th graders, only four in 10 said they had not had a drink in the previous month.

The coalition said that the most troubling finding was the average age of first-time alcohol use: 12.6 years old. For marijuana use, it was 14.3 years old.

Yet actual drug and alcohol use was far less than students had imagined - and far more than parents ever dreamed.

"There's a disconnect between perceived behavior and actual behavior," said Maura Ciccarelli, president of the coalition and director of communications at the Haverford School.

Adults will learn more about the survey results when focus groups are held with students and parents in the fall. Were the students talking about a six-pack at a party or wine at a religious ceremony?

"We'll learn that when we talk," said Harris J. Sokoloff, a member of the coalition's steering committee and adjunct associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sokoloff noted that one asset that increased significantly from 2000 - high expectations - may not be cause for celebration. Fifty-nine percent of students, up from 44 percent, said their parents and teachers press them to achieve.

Other results include:

Thirty-six percent of students said they believed that it was important not to engage in sex and to avoid alcohol and drugs.

Thirty-two percent felt that their parents actively helped them succeed at school.

Thirty-three percent said they asked their parents for advice and could communicate with them positively.

Seventy percent were actively engaged in and cared about their schools.

And 78 percent had families that provided high levels of love and support.

Bruce Barner, supervisor of guidance for the Lower Merion School District, credited school and community programs for improvement in the area's assets.

"We have lots and lots of kids who are being taken care of, being supported, being helped," he said. As an example, he cited the county's 57 Youth Aid Panels that allow first-time offenders to avoid a criminal record by performing community service.

Stephanie Shell of Ardmore, a mother of two elementary-age children who serves as project manager for the coalition, said the ages at which students first drank and used drugs "really scares me." And she worries about the 46 percent of students whose access to 20 or fewer assets put them at greater risk for using alcohol and tobacco, engaging in sexual activity, and attempting suicide.

But, Shell said, the report was also cause for hope. "Overall, it makes me feel good about living here," she said. "We're really moving in the right direction."



For results of the Lower Merion-Narberth Community Coalition assets survey, go to http://go.philly.com/mlschools

Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-701-7624 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.

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