Healthy Kids Survey sheds light on issues

A recent study on Laguna Beach students highlighted issues such as depression, feeling connected on campus and drunk driving, but also revealed that a high percentage of students felt happy at home and had plans for more education after high school.

During the Sept. 25 Laguna Beach Unified School District board meeting, Director of Special Education and Student Services Irene White discussed the results of the California Healthy Kids Survey, with some of the findings causing alarm.

The study, conducted every two years and funded by the Department of Education, surveyed seventh, ninth and 11th graders at the four schools in town.

Parents had to give permission for their children to participate. Sixty-six percent of fifth graders, 81% of seventh graders, 88% of ninth graders and 85% of 11th graders were surveyed. White said it was important to factor in the demographics of the students who didn't participated. She speculated that based on her own experience, those parents tend to be more conservative types who might insulate their children more and therefore the results could have been more positive if they had participated.

In the study, 19% of fifth graders said they either didn't or only sometimes felt that they had an adult on campus who cared about them. Of the seventh, ninth and 11 graders polled, 18% to 31% reported similar responses. White pointed to research showing a child needs a positive connection with seven adults.

"I think the value of an educator is significant," White said Monday. "The goal is that 100% of students believe they have caring relationships with teachers. It's definitely a concern."

White said the district has been working with staff on best first instruction when it comes to behavior — making sure to greet each child, praise them on their strengths and respond to each child's needs.

Behavioral and emotional issues also came up in the study. Nine percent of ninth graders and 11% of 11th graders reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. About 24% of 11th graders said they had felt sad or hopeless for a two-week period in the past year, which affected their ability to do everyday tasks.

The district obviously wants no students to feel this way, White said. She said the district works with teachers and counselors to identify students who might need emotional support and the district works with them to make an individual education plan, work out counseling or recommend outside therapy. White gave the example that some students have anxiety about attending school. They can work with the student to arrange their schedule so its less of a stressor and doesn't impede their success in classes. She said early intervention is key in these cases.

However, there was plenty of positive data from the study. All of the fifth graders surveyed said they had an adult at home who wants them to do their best, which White applauded since parents are a huge indicator of a child's success. Ninety-two percent of fifth graders reported that they had goals and aspirations for the future and 95% said they wanted to attend college or an other type of school after graduation.

Compared to prior years, White says cyber bullying, rumor spreading and physical fighting has decreased in grades seven, nine and 11. More students are also delaying when they start drinking alcohol, with eighth and ninth grade being the most vulnerable time for most students, White said.

However, White pointed out a concerning statistic: 27% to 31% of students in grades seven, nine and 11 reported that their parents did not talk to them about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

"Our kids absolutely need to know," she told the board at the last meeting. "They don't have the brain development at 11th grade to make those decisions."

In regards to drug and alcohol use, 8% of 11th graders tried ecstasy, with 5% having done it four or more times. About 10% of 11th graders reported trying LSD or other hallucinogens, and 6% reporting doing it four or more times.

During Wednesday's informational meeting on the proposed social host ordinance, high school students Andrew Landsiedel and Schuyler Vanderveen said they knew friends who admitted to lying on the test. In response, White said they explain to students that they take the results seriously and use them to plan programs.

Eleventh grade students reported domestic abuse in their romantic relationships — 6% said they'd been hit, slapped or physically harmed by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This statistic did cause concern because they'd had the same results two years prior in 9th grade, which indicates it could be the same group of students, according to White.

She said she's working with Laguna Beach High School Assistant Principal Bob Billinger and counselors to potentially create support groups on campus, for issues such as drug addiction or eating disorders. She said there is a population of students who are recovering addicts and Billinger would like to work with them to come up with preventative ideas and to work with other students.

More than 80% of students surveyed reported feeling safe all or most of the time at school. Seventh grade statistics stood out when it came to violence. Eight percent of seventh graders have carried a weapon other than a gun on campus, and 3% of seventh graders reported bringing a gun to school. About 14% said they had seen someone with a weapon on campus.

White said she doesn't believe the weapon stats are accurate because she believes students would report seeing a weapon on campus. In regards to safety, although the majority of students reported feeling safe, some students are homeless or live in poverty, which would create that feeling, she said.

Besides paying close attention to students, the district also offers resources for parents looking for support. The district offers a Parenting Project, which is a led by a marriage and family therapist, going over basic parenting principles in two groups during a seven week period. She said parents who participated have been pleased with it, using it to address questions such as boundary setting and determining appropriate activities for a child's age.

Twitter: @joannaclay

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