BANGOR, Maine — Every year, schools across Maine are asked to participate in the state Office of Substance Abuse’s drug and alcohol use survey.
The survey asks students a series of sometimes-uncomfortable questions and uses the answers to compile data about drug and alcohol use and-or abuse.
That information is used to identify trends or areas where specific school departments could direct efforts to students. If one department has a high rate of marijuana use, that shows up in the survey. If binge drinking is the problem, the data typically reflect that.
Aside from the practical applications, the data are used to secure federal grant funding. For instance, Bangor’s Health and Community Services Department recently got the go-ahead to apply for a $125,000 annual grant, renewable for up to 10 years, for substance abuse prevention. If awarded, the money will benefit schools in Brewer, Hampden and Hermon, communities that are all part of Bangor’s Healthy Maine Partnership.
So why wouldn’t Bangor schools benefit from the grant?
The Bangor School Department does not participate in the survey, which is a requirement for that particular grant and many funding opportunities. Superintendent Betsy Webb said the school department doesn’t participate in any survey that doesn’t meet its mission of educational excellence.
“We are not in the business of using students to get money,” she said.
Bangor deals with substance use and abuse differently, she said.
“We feel like every child is at risk for every substance,” Webb said. “We don’t need data to tell us that.”
At a recent City Council subcommittee meeting during which the grant application was discussed, some councilors were surprised about Bangor’s reluctance to participate in the survey.
Councilor Hal Wheeler wondered what made Bangor students any different from students in other districts. Councilor Geoff Gratwick thought it would be worthwhile to explore the issue of Bangor’s nonparticipation. Councilor Pat Blanchette agreed that the Bangor School Committee should revisit the discussion.
School committee Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette, however, said she doesn’t see any reason to change departmental policy.
“It’s nice to get grant money, but it has to fit with our needs,” she said. “Just because other communities are going down the path doesn’t make it right for Bangor. I’m confident in our system.”
Guy Cousins, director of the state Office of Substance Abuse, said Bangor’s lack of participation in the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, formerly the Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey, certainly affects the data.
“It’s their prerogative, but the fact that [one of the largest districts] in the state doesn’t participate means we’re not getting a full picture of what the problem looks like,” he said.
According to the Office of Substance Abuse, the 2008 MYDAUS results included surveys from 74,953 students from 340 schools in 141 districts, or approximately 75 percent of all eligible students in Maine.
The data are telling.
In Penobscot County, 11.2 percent of high school students said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days. Another 11.4 percent said they had participated in binge drinking, a number that rose to 26.2 percent for 12th-graders. About 24 percent said they had used alcohol in the past 30 days, 4 percent of students had used inha-lants in the past 30 days and 5 percent had illegally used prescription drugs in the past 30 days.
Would those numbers be different if the more than 4,000 students in the Bangor school district were included? Perhaps, Cousins said.
“We can say all substances can be problematic, but getting an idea of which are more accessible and what is the accessibility, that’s the interesting piece,” he said. “We can get trends across the state, but we can also narrow it down and target areas.”
Cousins said schools use the state’s data in planning but it also helps set public policy through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons, whose school department serving Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh has participated for years, agreed with Cousins that the survey has tremendous benefit.
“The data is an affirmation of what we already know, but it allows us to track trends from year to year,” he said. “We can’t keep our head in the sand.”
Although in a minority, Bangor is not the only school department that refuses to participate in the state survey. Other area schools include: Central High School in Corinth, George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Lincoln Academy in Newcastle and Orono High School.
Mel McKay, head of school at John Bapst, said his school’s lack of participation is not guided by philosophy but practicality.
“We have the opportunity to participate in innumerable surveys and it’s hard to single out one or two,” he said.
Asked about the missed opportunities for grant funding, McKay said, “On the surface it looks like a missed opportunity, but those grants don’t always work out.”
Webb stressed that no Bangor school official is naive enough to think Bangor doesn’t have the same drug problems that other schools have. She and her school committee just don’t support the survey.
“Our approach to drugs and alcohol is educative,” she said. “We have a comprehensive chemical health curriculum. We’ve been a leader there.”
Webb said the department tracks all instances of drug possession or use in the schools, which historically is a low number. That data doesn’t reflect students’ use after school or on the weekends, but again Bangor officials stressed the education piece.
“We understand that this is a huge societal issue, but there are many other venues for people to be involved in this issue,” Guerette said.
The survey takes about two hours to complete. Bangor School Committee member Phyllis Shubert said the idea of shutting the school down for a couple of hours to participate in a survey is not a good use of time. She and Guerette also questioned the accuracy of the survey.
“Those comments are ill-informed,” Cousins countered. “Like many surveys, we have sophisticated measures of validity.”
But, policy is policy, and Bangor’s, which has been around since the early 1980s, prohibits questionnaires that involve answering questions about “illegal, antisocial, self-incriminating or demeaning behavior,” which includes drug or alcohol use. Even though the state survey is anonymous, Webb and other Bangor school officials said the emotional impact on students is real.
Although he would like to see 100 percent participation in the survey, Cousins respected Bangor’s reasons and stressed that a school’s lack of participation does not hinder the state’s ability to provide resources to that school.
Lyons at SAD 22 agreed that the state’s survey is not an end-all, be-all but it’s a small commitment that could reap big benefits.
“It’s just another part of the equation,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want all the resources you can get?”