If you don't believe Arkansas has a problem in its schools with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, you should take some time to read the latest report for your school district from the 2011 Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Student Survey. More than likely, it will convince you that there is a problem in your own back yard and that it's getting worse.

If you don’t believe Arkansas has a problem in its schools with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, you should take some time to read the latest report for your school district from the 2011 Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Student Survey. More than likely, it will convince you that there is a problem in your own back yard and that it’s getting worse.

Each year since 2002 the state Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, a program of the Department of Human Services, Division of Behavioral Health Services, has surveyed substance abuse in the sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. While participation is voluntary, each year the survey has managed to involve a greater percentage of students in those grades across the state.

The 2011 survey, consisting of 224 questions, was administered to 100,371 students in 221 school districts last November. The survey was anonymous so that students had no reason not to tell the truth in their responses, but about 10 percent of the tests were ruled for various reasons as not honest and eliminated, leaving a total of 90,468 valid tests.

That still offers a pretty broad picture of our students in those four grades.

The APNA survey measures the current student use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. The substances include: Alcohol, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine, inhalants, stimulants, sedatives, methamphetamines, ecstasy and heroin. Students’ use of these drugs is compared with national data, as well as between different Arkansas regions. The survey also measures student involvement in various antisocial behaviors, including assault and gang involvement, and it measures the prevalence of 19 risk and 13 protective factors in students’ lives.

If you want to learn about these issues, take some time and go to this website: http://arkansas.pridesurveys.com. There you can find the full state report, but be advised it takes some time to read and absorb. Also available are regional reports and district-by-district results.

As important as this is, the report doesn’t get much attention. The state agency provides results to Arkansas policy makers and prevention workers, but they have to take time to sit down and analyze the complex findings. Most school districts keep the data for individual schools secret — perhaps for fear that the cloak of anonymity will be broken — but that excuse certainly doesn’t apply district wide.

Few attempts have been made to let the general public know about the results, at least not until the creation of Out of the Dark, an organization that fights drug abuse, in Jonesboro in 2008. Founder Skip Mooney Jr., a Jonesboro attorney, started publicizing the results on the organization’s website — www.outofthedark.org — and I’ve tried to pass some of the information along in this column.

Because the survey has changed a bit over the years, as has participation, it’s not fruitful to pay too much attention to year-to-year comparisons, but some trends are obvious and quite disturbing.

What does the survey say that’s important to you? That depends, of course, whether you’re the parent of a student in school. If so, consider these statewide findings:

—Of those youths who have used cigarettes, the average age of first use was 12.3 years.

—The first incidence of a youth taking more than a sip or two of alcohol occurs at 12.7 years. The first regular use of alcohol starts at 14.2 years.

—Of the students who had used marijuana, the average age of first use was 13.7 years.

—Almost half of all 12th graders reported regular use of “alcopops” — flavored alcoholic beverages like wine coolers and malt beverages, which can contain a higher alcohol content than wine or beer.

—Fifteen percent of 10th graders and 23 percent of 12th graders reported binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion) at least once in the previous two weeks.

—Ten percent of all 12th graders reported heavy use of marijuana (one or more marijuana cigarettes a day) within the previous 30 days.

—Twenty-seven percent of 12th graders and 13 percent of all students reported using two or more drugs within the previous 30 days.

All that can be serious enough, but also consider what the survey found in regard to antisocial behavior, which can be related. During the previous year 12.3 percent of the students surveyed reported being suspended from school, 9 percent reported having been drunk at school and 13 percent reported attacking someone with the intent of harming that person.

You may think your child couldn’t possibly have problems like this, and you’re blessed if that indeed is the case. But check the reports, and don’t think it couldn’t happen. You may remember how powerful peer pressure can be.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.