Youths' behavior worries officials County health board wants to sound alarm about 'public threat'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Concerned about drugs, alcohol and risky sexual behavior among Howard County's youth, members of the county health board soon will meet with school officials to discuss ways to curb such conduct.

Health board members -- who say they want to sound the alarm about what they view as a crisis among county youth -- will meet Nov. 30 with the county school board. They plan to follow up with other steps, including a countywide forum.

"We consider this a public health threat to the citizens of Howard County," Dr. Douglas Carmel, a health board member, said during the board's monthly meeting Tuesday night.

The board's comments came days after the state issued a report indicating that Howard County residents generally are in good health compared with the statewide average in areas such as death from heart attack and stroke; the incidence of AIDS, and pre-natal care.

But data compiled by the health board from various sources indicate smoking, drug use, pregnancy and rampant binge drinking, among Howard's youth.

Among the data presented by Dr. Joyce Boyd, Howard County's health officer, Tuesday night:

* Marijuana use in Howard County was higher than the statewide average in 1994, with 28.6 percent of 12th graders surveyed saying they had used the drug in the 30 days preceding the state's survey. The state average was 25.3 percent. The state wants to reduce the percentage to 3.2 percent by the year 2000.

* 52.4 percent of the county's 12th graders surveyed in 1994 said they drank alcohol during the 30 days preceding the survey -- compared with the 12.6 percent goal set by the state for 2000. Statewide, the percentage was 53.3 percent.

* 31.2 percent of 12th graders smoked cigarettes during the 30 days preceding the survey, compared with 29.9 percent statewide. The state's goal is to cut the percentage to 15 percent by 2000.

* Although the local teen-age pregnancy rate in 1992 was well below the statewide average -- 16.3 per thousand, compared with 37.6 per thousand -- that rate still indicates a high level of unprotected sexual activity, said Dr. Boyd. Two out of three teen-age pregnancies in Howard County end in abortion, compared with one out of three statewide, statistics show.

Board members and others said the data illustrate the problems caused by idle teen-agers left unsupervised after school.

"There just doesn't seem to be anything for teens to do," said board member Katherine Farrell. Adults send the message that "we don't want them in the malls, we don't want them here, we don't want them there."

The health leaders plan to recommend that the school board increase the number of after-school programs and lengthen the school day so students don't have as much time by themselves before parents get home from work.

Community involvement

They also are proposing ways to get the community more involved in supervising young people, including bumper stickers that ask, "How's my child's driving?" with a phone number to call if there are problems.

Some members of the county school system yesterday said they support the efforts of the health board but want to see more participation from parents in the lives of their children.

"We try to hit it in the curriculum area," said Mamie Perkins, curriculum coordinator for health. "We try to tell the students about the risks of certain activities. Some are life-threatening."

But school board member Stephen Bounds, who voiced concern about teen behavior at a recent board meeting, said that some young people persist in drug, alcohol and risky sexual activity despite such warnings.

"Education alone is not enough," Mr. Bounds said. "Parents are going to have to wake up. Parents are going to have to get their priorities straight. They are going to have to get involved."

Mr. Bounds said parental involvement is especially important because budget cuts may make it difficult to implement some of the health board's proposals.

Most health goals exceeded

Risky behavior among Howard's teen-agers is the weakest part of the county's health picture, according to a report issued last week by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

That report shows that the county already exceeds many of the state's other health goals for the year 2000.

"Howard is one of the healthiest jurisdictions in the state," said Jeannette Duerr, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "I'm sure that has to do with Howard County having fairly wealthy people, well-educated people . . . who are concerned about their health."

For example, Howard has the lowest mortality rate in the state -- 387 for every 100,000 people, compared with 529 per 100,000 statewide from 1992 to 1994. More detailed statistics are expected to be released early next year.

Ms. Duerr expressed concern about a lack of improvement in the county's performance on prenatal care since 1989. But the number receiving late or no prenatal care -- eight out of 100 births -- is lower than the statewide goal of 10 per 100 by the year 2000. The statewide average is 15.

Among the other statistics in the report:

* About 100 of every 100,000 county residents died of coronary heart disease, compared with 140 per 100,000 statewide from 1992 through 1994.

* Three of 100,000 county residents were homicide victims, compared with 14 per 100,000 statewide from 1992 through 1994.

* Twenty of 100,000 county residents died from strokes, compared with 25 per 100,000 statewide from 1992 through 1994.

* Thirty-four of 100,000 residents died of lung cancer, compared with 42 per 100,000 statewide, according to 1993 figures, the report's latest data.

* Six of 100,000 county residents committed suicide, compared with nine statewide from 1992 through 1994.

* Eleven of 100,000 residents contracted the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus, compared with 54 per 100,000 statewide in 1994.

* Six of 100 births were low weight, compared with eight per 100 statewide, according to 1993 figures, the report's latest data.

"In general, Howard County is in good health," Dr. Boyd, the local health chief, said. Even so, she said, "Howard County kids do have risky behaviors."

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