Survey Says Pierson Students Use More Drugs, Alcohol than Peers Nationally

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.
The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

By Christine Sampson

Pierson Middle-High School students have lately achieved comparatively high marks on their Regents exams, SATs and International Baccalaureate tests, but there’s one more area where Pierson students are scoring higher than their peers in other schools: The rate at which they use alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.

That’s according to a survey of middle and high school students conducted in the fall of 2016 by New York State’s Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. The results were released Monday by the group SAFE in Sag Harbor at a Sag Harbor School Board meeting.

“You are a tight, beautiful, wonderful community. These are not the numbers that you want to excel in,” said Kym Laube, the program director of SAFE in Sag Harbor.

The “Youth Development Survey” polled 344 students in grades seven through 12 in 2014 and again in 2016. Ms. Laube said it is designed to capture accurate but anonymous information, with the ability to rule out “anomalies and falsified answers.”

According to the survey, in the category of “Past 30 Day Substance Abuse,” 73 percent of seniors had reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, compared with 50 percent of sophomores and 9 percent of eighth graders. With marijuana, 43 percent of seniors reported using it in the past 30 days, compared with 20 percent of sophomores and 5 percent of eighth graders. With cigarettes, 29 percent of seniors had smoked them in the past 30 days, compared with 7 percent of sophomores; no eighth graders reported using cigarettes. Prescription drug abuse, which is defined as taking prescription drugs outside of their intended medical use, was under 10 percent for each of these three student populations.

With the exception of eighth graders using cigarettes, Sag Harbor students’ rates of use of cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol were ahead of national averages almost universally. It was most dramatic in the seniors’ and sophomores’ use of alcohol. Whereas 73 percent of the Sag Harbor seniors and 50 percent of the sophomores reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, the national average is 33 percent for the seniors and 20 percent for the sophomores.

In the category of “Lifetime Substance Abuse,” which refers to students who had tried alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana at least once, the figures were also staggering. Of the seniors, 91 percent had tried alcohol; of the sophomores, 72 percent had tried it, and of the eighth graders, 34 percent had tried it. Sixty-three percent of seniors had tried marijuana and 57 percent had tried cigarettes.

“All schools are dealing with substance abuse issues right now,” Ms. Laube said. “Vaping, underage drinking. This is really not a school problem to fix in isolation. Kids know that drugs are bad, they know that alcohol is dangerous. But knowledge isn’t often enough to change behavior. We know that over time, through a series of comprehensive strategies, we are able to bring about population-level change.”

The results were reminiscent of another survey that yielded similar data in the fall of 2016, presented by SAFE in Sag Harbor’s predecessor, the Sag Harbor Coalition.

The presentation Monday included information from a group of students who are members of SAFE in Sag Harbor. They said the underage drinking and drug use is occurring at parties at certain houses, in specific bathrooms at the school, and “under the bridge” in the village.

“We as Pierson students walk in these halls and know that this problem exists,” Hope Brindle said. “Our peers are proud of and talk openly about their use, what their consequences were — usually not that harsh — and posting on social media, usually Instagram and Snapchat. Adults will see it as a rite of passage — ‘That’s what I did when I was that age.’”

Griffin Federico said according to their research, New York State has granted 23 liquor licenses in the village of Sag Harbor. “The Hamptons party or drinking culture here makes it difficult for someone our age here to take a step back and say I don’t want to take part in drinking,” he said.

Alex Dudley suggested a widespread public awareness campaign be launched. “We need to work to change the social norms and community norms,” she said.