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Survey gives insight into Middletown Area School District students; they are 'at risk' in several areas

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/21/18

Do local children want to drink before turning 21? Do they feel like school is going to be important later in their lives? Have they ever skipped a meal because they didn’t have enough …

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Survey gives insight into Middletown Area School District students; they are 'at risk' in several areas

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Do local children want to drink before turning 21? Do they feel like school is going to be important later in their lives? Have they ever skipped a meal because they didn’t have enough money?

These were some of the questions Middletown Area School District sought to get answers to in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, or PAYS, report.

The survey is administered every two years and taken by sixth-graders, eighth-graders, sophomores and seniors. The results were presented to the MASD school board in the fall.

According to MASD Assistant to the Superintendent Chelton Hunter, there were three areas where Middletown students were considered the most “at risk:” low commitment toward school; parents’ favorable attitudes toward antisocial behavior; and students not considering drug use a risky behavior, which Hunter said meant that students were more likely to use drugs.

MASD’s three highest “protective factors” were family rewards (63.3 percent of students protected), prosocial involvement (61.5 percent protected) and family attachment (59 percent protected).

Superintendent Lori Suski noted that as students go through their school career, the prevalence of these risk factors increase.

Both the school district and representatives of Communities That Care — a coalition that works to address risks to local children and families — said they have plans to use the survey results to implement efforts to address the risky behavior identified by PAYS.

Communities That Care is a nationally known research-based initiative that works with existing groups in a community to address issues impacting young people, such as substance abuse and violence.

Middletown Communities That Care’s Ellen Willenbecher noted that the survey indicated that students had a low attachment to their neighborhood.

“This data has illuminated a need in Middletown. Maybe something that we all knew, but when you see it coming from data, you can feel confident that you’re moving forward on a solid foundation,” Willenbecher said.

Survey results

The survey was conducted in fall 2017 and is made up of 32 questions.

Hunter said the survey indicated stressors put on students in school, in the community and among friends that could lead to future drug use or dropping out of school. On the other end of the spectrum, PAYS also reported people or other conditions in place that prevented those behaviors.

These “risk” and “protective” factors are divided into four areas — community, family, school and peer and individual.

PAYS covered a number of topics, such as how frequently they drank, smoked, vaped or used drugs; whether they were open to using one of these substances; gambling; “antisocial behaviors” such as selling drugs; coming to school drunk or high; or attacking someone.

Besides documenting their activities, the survey asked students how their parents and peers perceived drug, tobacco and alcohol use.

The survey also measured the students’ attachment to the school (such as whether they participated in school activities, did they participate in class discussion, and whether they felt their school work was meaningful), bullying, mental health, and stressful events (like death of a family member, moving, and availability of food).

Of 21 identified risk factors by the survey, MASD’s highest were in perceived drug use (53 percent of students at risk), low commitment toward school (49 percent at risk) and parental attitudes favorable toward antisocial behavior (48 percent at risk). Other high factors were low neighborhood attachment and favorable attitudes toward drug use.

PAYS reported that 43.3 percent of the surveyed students said they have drank beer, wine or liquor at some point in their lives with 6.6 percent of the students saying they binge-drank during the past two weeks. The most common ways that the students acquired alcohol was by giving someone money to purchase it for them or by stealing it from either their home, a friend’s home or a store.

The survey indicated that 18.3 percent of surveyed students have used marijuana at some point in their life, and 17.6 percent reported smoking cigarettes.

Hunter said the more students bond with each other in school and get involved in extracurricular activities and sports, the more that risk factors will decrease.

Communities That Care

After seeing the results, Willenbecher noted the students’ low attachment to their neighborhoods.

“It’s defined as it sounds. For a majority of kids, they do not feel connected to their community or bonded to their community,” Willenbecher said.

The data indicated that 20.8 percent of students changed homes once or twice in the last three years and 15.9 percent moved once or twice in the last year alone.

“If we could increase kids’ commitment and bonding to the community, it would in turn decrease the risk of them engaging in risky behavior,” Willenbecher said.

She said while there were activities available in the school setting, there were fewer activities — be it recreation or social activities, community service, or activities that increase skill or target a child’s interest — available in the community.

The PAYS report showed that 86.6 percent of the students participated in one activity, such as volunteer work, 4-H, Scouts, youth group or school-sponsored sports. The data indicated that students most frequently participated in school-sponsored activities at 62.8 percent student participation.

The survey reported that 18.1 percent of students participated in activities organized by the community, 22.8 percent took part in faith-based activities, and 22.5 percent volunteered, although PAYS also notes that 41.6 percent of students participated in hobbies and family-supported activities and 28.4 percent participated in “other activities.”

Increasing the children’s attachment to the community, Willenbecher said, is the cornerstone of Communities That Care’s action plan, which will be implemented over the next two years.

She said they planned to create a community activities calendar to keep families and children informed about what was going on.

Step 2 would be partnering with already-existing events and organizations, who she said are interested having kids participate in the organization or find ways for them to give back to their community.

Willenbecher said parents in the past have wanted more activities to do with their children in the evening and on weekends. Communities That Care has already identified several potential activities to get parents and children more involved locally.

For example, Willenbecher said Scott Sites with Members 1st Federal Credit Union is interested in leading a community clean up days in the fall and spring. The Middletown Area Historical Society, she said, wants kids to volunteer to both help take care of the collection but also learn more about it. She said they were also interested in having family tours on Saturdays.

The Middletown Area Table Tennis Club wants to offer events where children can learn about the rules and participate in mock tournaments, Willenbecher said.

Some of the activities will be open to children of all ages, Willenbecher said some of the other activities will be targeted specifically toward middle school students.

With PAYS being conducted every two years, Willenbecher said they hoped to see the data, such as low connection to their communities, improve.

“We would rather see an increase in kids feeling bonded and committed to their community which in turn should lower some of the data points on use of alcohol, vaping and marijuana,” Willenbecher said.