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GROTON – A new survey of local youths has revealed continued behavior that can place many of the town’s young people at risk of personal harm or endanger their health.

In the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted last year by Emerson Hospital and involving over 1,100 Groton-Dunstable students, results have yielded information that in some respects are encouraging while in others disappointing.

Groton-Dunstable Regional School District students joined many of their peers in seven other local communities to help draw a picture of teen activities in a range of categories including internet use and safety, bullying, alcohol, drugs, and sexual behavior.

Most disturbing however, were those findings dealing with the internet and sexual behavior.

For instance, results indicate that at least one in every four Groton-Dunstable students surveyed stated that they have given out personal data over the internet to complete strangers.

Of the students surveyed, 17 percent said that they had met someone personally with whom they initially had contact over the internet. More disturbing, the survey showed that at the middle school level, 7 percent of 6th graders and 19 percent of 8th graders reported giving out personal information over the internet to someone they had never met. Among the same group of students, 6 percent of 6th graders and 11 percent of 8th graders said that they had met someone in person with whom they initially had contact over the internet.

"The internet can be a valuable tool for educating students in a variety of ways," commented School Superintendent Alan Genovese. "However, it is clear that parents and schools need to be vigilant in keeping children and teens safe when using it. GDRSD has a number of internet safety strategies in place, including acceptable use policies and blocking inappropriate sites. We are also exploring internet safety curricula. Additionally, we need to work in partnership with parents as they put in place safety rules at home. The Groton-Dunstable Alliance for Youth has run several parent education sessions on the topic. Education of parents and students and monitoring youth behaviors should be an ongoing practice."

Also included in the survey were questions dealing with sexual behavior among high schoolers and 8th graders.

Although "relatively no change" was indicated in survey results regarding the number of students claiming to have had sexual intercourse in the past 8 years, 34 percent of high schoolers in the latest questioning stated that they have had intercourse; an increase of 3 percent since 2000.

Among 8th graders, 8% of students reported that they have had sexual intercourse, a slight drop of 1 percent since 2004.

Shocking as these statistics may be, more still is that involving oral sex among area young people which a total of 42 percent of Groton-Dunstable respondents have stated they have participated in.

Oral sex, once the province of pornography and peep shows, has become an acceptable practice among middle and upper class youth who, according to the National Center of Health Statistics, do not consider it "sex" in the strict sense.

Although surveys indicate that the national average for young people who have participated in oral sex is more than half, the local average for the seven communities that took part in the Emerson survey was 36 percent, well below the average for Groton-Dunstable. The other school district’s that took part in the survey included Acton-Boxboro, Concord-Carlisle, Westford, Maynard, and Littleton.

The Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been conducted every other year for the last eight years. The survey, originally developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and used in communities nationwide, collects information on a wide range of behaviors, including vehicle safety, violence, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behavior, and dietary and exercise patterns.

Results yielded by the survey are used to create effective health programs focusing on the issues most relevant in area schools. The survey also helps local communities identify problem areas and, in partnership with schools, to promote positive youth development to deal with them.

According to Dr. Judith Robinson, Health Coordinator for Groton-Dunstable, letters were sent to parents informing them that if they did not want their children participating in the survey, they could have them exempted. Before making their decision, parents were invited to come to the school and review the survey if they chose.

"The original survey was written by the Centers for Disease Control, a pretty reliable group," said Robinson of the survey’s veracity. "Although anonymous answers to questions are usually pretty accurate, we tried to minimize any false answers by having the survey conducted at the same time for all students. Also, teachers read the script to all the students so that they would all get the same instructions. Teachers were asked not to comment on any of the survey questions while it was being conducted."

Robinson said that when students had completed the survey, a consultant reviewed the results for signs indicating that participants may not have taken it seriously and not answered truthfully. However, with a multi-year track record established, the reliability of students answers can be judged against the averages of preceding years.

"Education and intervention steps require the commitment on all fronts," said Robinson of the problems highlighted in the survey. "Families, schools, and the community need to work together on behalf of our children and teens."

Despite results in the sexual behavior portion of the survey, there was some good news for parents indicated in the Emerson questions most notably among those dealing with teenage smoking habits that followed national averages in a gradual decline over the years. Among Groton-Dunstable youth, 30 percent reported even experimenting with tobacco and only 15 percent stating that they had smoked recently. The state average is 51 percent and 21 percent respectively.

The consumption of alcohol among Groton-Dunstable young people is also on the decline from 58 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2006. Interestingly, high schoolers involved in some kind of team sport are more likely to drink by an average of 44 percent to 39 percent.

Decline in alcohol use by 8th graders also showed some improvement declining from 26 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2006.

In regards to the use of marijuana, there was no change among the district’s high schoolers with a steady 23 percent reporting usage. With 8th graders, there was a decline in use from 7 percent in 2002 to 3 percent in 2006. In addition, there was no reported use of marijuana by 6th graders.

Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that there was an increasing likelihood of a young person being in a car driven by someone under the influence of alcohol or marijuana as they moved up from 8th grade through the high school years.

The survey also indicated continued decline in the ability of students to access alcohol or drugs on school property or at parties where alcohol was allowed by adults. At the 8th grade level 8 percent of the students reported attending parties where alcohol was available, down from 12 percent in 2002. At the high school level, 31 percent of the students reported attending parties where teen alcohol use was allowed, down from 38 percent in 2002.

In other areas of questioning, the Emerson survey revealed that only 4 percent of high school students reported having been threatened at school and 14 percent bullied. Only 7 percent suffered sexual harassment down from 13 percent in 2002.

Meanwhile, 25 percent of 6th graders and 21 percent of 8th graders reported being bullied in school.

Overall, in most behavior categories, males were at slightly greater risk with their numbers about equal with females in the consumption of alcohol and sexual activity but being twice as likely to use marijuana and a quarter as likely to be involved in oral sex.

Results of the Emerson survey will be officially presented to the School Committee at its meeting of Feb. 7 and a public forum on the issues raised is scheduled for Feb. 27 at the High School’s Black Box Theater.

For those seeking more information about the survey, they can contact Robinson by telephone at 978-448-6362, x1132 or by email at jrobinson@gdrsd.org.