Photo by Jerry Gay
As drugs and alcohol use problems plaque Ballard High School and schools through the state, a new coalition has formed to prevent underage drinking and substance abuse.

Kicking the habit: a new coalition tries to solve drug problem at Ballard High School

A sign reading, "This is a Tobacco-free, Drug-free, Weapons-free campus" welcomes anyone who enters Ballard High School via the main entrance. Yet the biggest problem the school is currently facing is drug and alcohol use among its student population.

Just a few weeks ago, a group of students was busted for possession of marijuana at "the smoking corner" just off campus. And last spring, a school dance was cancelled due to a bad experience at the previous Winter Ball where many students were caught under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

"I have felt for many years now that drug and alcohol use and abuse is the biggest problem facing American High Schools and that Ballard is no different," said BHS Principal Keven Wynkoop. "It is perfectly natural for teenagers to want to test the limits on their freedom and drug and alcohol use is just one of the most obvious examples of this... I have viewed the results of the Healthy Youth Survey and often felt powerless to have a major impact as a school on what is truly a societal issue."

Conducted by Seattle Public Schools, the Healthy Youth Survey is given to 10th and 12th graders in the fall of every even numbered year. It is voluntary and anonymous, and the most recent data available are from October, 2010.

The data showed that "things improved between 2008 and 2010, but Ballard is still higher than the state average" for drug and alcohol use, said Lisa Sharp from Seattle Public Schools' Student Health Networking Program.

In 2010, 175 10th graders and 178 12th graders were surveyed at Ballard High School. Data showed that among the 10th graders 27 percent were currently using marijuana and 31 percent were drinking alcohol. State-wide percentages were 20 percent for marijuana use, and 28 percent for alcohol use.
Among the 12th graders, 34 percent admitted to using marijuana and 47 percent were drinking alcohol. Again, these statistics were higher than the state percentages, which were 26 percent for marijuana use and 40 percent for alcohol use.

"Another thing I see at Ballard (and, honestly, most of our [Seattle] schools) is that many kids do not see risk in regular marijuana use," added Sharp. "In 2010, 35 percent of 10th graders and 45 percent of 12th graders said there is 'no or low risk from regular marijuana use'. This too is higher than the state average." And 88 percent of the 12th graders, and 73 percent of 10th graders, see little or no harm in trying marijuana once or twice.

Wynkoop also expressed concern over marijuana use.

"What I have seen shift in my years as an administrator is that we used to have students drunk at school and at school events, but they rarely had been using marijuana. Now that has shifted to where almost all of the students that are caught under the influence at school have been using marijuana, while the only time we see alcohol is at evening events like dances," he said.

The biggest problems with marijuana and alcohol seem to be the accessibility to the products and the students’ perception that "everyone is doing it".

"For the last five years, it seems like 75 percent of popular music has included explicit references to drug and alcohol use [that] just makes it the norm," Wynkoop said. "When I have serious conversations with students about drug and alcohol use, they are convinced that ‘everyone’ uses, so why wouldn’t they. They don’t understand that it just isn’t true."

The majority of students who drink alcohol do not acquire it themselves. According to the 2010 Healthy Youth Survey, 59 percent of the sophomores surveyed obtained alcohol from friends or at parties, while 23 percent got their alcohol from home with or without permission.
Among the seniors, 53 percent said they received alcohol from friends or at parties, 29 percent got it at home with or without permission, and 12 percent said they bought it at a store themselves.

"When most parents have alcohol in the house and more than a few even smoke marijuana, it is hard to take that on as a school. This seemingly random line of demarcation of age 21 for the legal or illegal consumption of alcohol just makes teenagers all the more likely to drink at an earlier age," said Wynkoop.

Also alarming is the perception that underage alcohol users won't get caught, at least, not by the police. Only 18 percent of the sophomores and 13 percent of the seniors surveyed think police will catch teenage drinkers. Meanwhile, five percent of the sophomores and 12 percent of the seniors admitted to having driven after drinking. And 27 percent admitted to having ridden in a car when the driver had been drinking.

But as far as alcohol and drug use on campus goes, Wynkoop is optimistic.

"After having a really bad experience at Winter Ball last year that led to us canceling the spring dance, we have now had three consecutive dances without a single student that was found to be under the influence," said Wynkoop.

Credit perhaps goes to the strict disciplinary procedures at the school.

BHS adheres to the District’s discipline procedures regarding alcohol and drug use. First time offenders are suspended through the end of the semester with the option of a reduced three day suspension if they are willing to get a drug and alcohol assessment and enroll in whatever treatment the provider recommends.

"This huge difference between options forces students into education and treatment, which is far more effective than just keeping students out on suspension," Wynkoop said.

Additionally, BHS has imposed their own set of disciplinary procedures by banning students from school dances for the rest of the school year in which they are suspended. Athletes caught under the influence are also suspended from 20 percent of the contests of the season.

To prevent underage drinking and substance abuse in a more positive manner through education, advocacy, and youth engagement, a new coalition has formed in Ballard.

Titled the Northwest Seattle Coalition for a Drug-Free Community, the group brings together parents, staff of local high schools and middle schools, and members of the local government, media, businesses, and law enforcement, to reduce the use of drugs and alcohol at local schools.

The coalition was started by Julie, a BHS parent who struggled with a child hooked on marijuana.

"I saw a big problem at this school yet there are little resources for parents," Julie said. "Parents are sweeping it under the carpet, and also, a big part of the parents think drinking and experimenting with drugs is just part of growing up."

Together with Paul Barry, Mental Health Therapist at the Ballard Teen Health Center, Julie is organizing a Town Hall Meeting and Clean Carnival on May 2nd in an effort to raise awareness and mobilize the community to prevent underage drinking.

"We need to develop an alternative culture that supports not using," Barry said.

Hosted by members of BHS's Active Drug Alcohol Prevention Team (ADAPT), the Clean Carnival is geared toward middle and high school youth and is a night of fun activities and drug and alcohol use awareness.

The Town Hall Meeting, intended for parents and community members, includes a talk by Mary Casey-Goldstein, Research Coordinator at the UW Social Development Research Group, and will be focused on the prevention of adolescent depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

Casey-Goldstein will address how to talk to teens about drug and alcohol, and the Northwest Seattle Coalition for a Drug-Free Community will address the prevalence of drug use at BHS.

"[Drugs and alcohol] is not an issue that schools can take on by ourselves and that is why I am so grateful for the work that Julie, Paul Barry, Meg Wakeman and the others have been doing," said Wynkoop. "If anything can make a difference, it has to be addressed from a variety of angles and this coalition seems like a great step in the right direction.”

The Town Hall Meeting and Clean Carnival will take place Wednesday, May 2nd, from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. at Ballard High School, 1418 NW 65th St.

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