Carroll County students are smoking, drinking and using drugs less than they did five years ago, according to a survey by the State Department of Education.
Carroll school and law enforcement officials said yesterday they were thrilled with the improvements, crediting increased education of younger pupils about the dangers. Officials said they were particularly pleased with significant drops in drinking and smoking rates at all age levels and across-the-board drops in drug and alcohol use among sixth- and eighth-graders.
"I couldn't be more pleased," said Olivia Myers, executive director of Junction Inc., a Westminster substance abuse prevention and treatment facility. "You know how many years I had to sit up here and say Carroll County is the worst, so this is wonderful."
Myers has been closely involved in the county's crusade against heroin, which began about five years ago after a Westminster teen-ager died of an overdose, the first time such an incident was documented in Carroll. At that time, statistics showed Carroll as one of the worst counties in the state for teen heroin abuse.
But the county's 10th- and 12th-graders now say they are using heroin at slightly less than the state average. The number of heroin users among 10th- and 12th-graders remained roughly the same as last year - with about 1 percent of those surveyed saying they had used within 30 days.
"Heroin is still a nightmare for us," said Thomasina Piercy, principal at Mount Airy Elementary and founder of Not My Kid, a parental awareness program. Piercy's son died in 1999 of a heroin overdose at age 19.
Carroll sixth- and eighth-graders used drugs and alcohol less than their peers around the state while 10th- and 12th-graders used most substances at about the state average, according to the survey, which included responses from about 2,000 Carroll students who were polled in December.
Law enforcement officials said they believe the numbers for 10th and 12th grade remained closer to the state average because the county's relative affluence means many students have access to cars and travel to areas where drug use and sales are more prevalent. But officials said they hope improvements among younger pupils will carry through higher grades on future surveys.
"I think it shows that what we have in place is working very well," said Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning.
Students participate voluntarily and anonymously in the survey, answering questions about what substances they have used in the past 30 days, the last year or ever.
Officials look most carefully at the 30-day figures because they believe those numbers paint the clearest picture of how many students are regular users. The numbers documenting use within the last year follow the same trends as the 30-day numbers.
County officials said they remained disappointed in some numbers. For example, 27.5 percent of Carroll 12th- graders said they had smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days compared with 19.8 percent statewide. Also, 46.2 percent of Carroll seniors said they drank beer and wine, a slightly higher rate than students across the state.
But even in such problem areas, the numbers have decreased since 1998, when 38.2 percent of seniors said they had smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days and 57.2 said they had consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. Binge drinking rates also have declined with 30.4 percent of 12th-graders saying they had binged within the past 30 days compared with 37.7 percent in 1998.
County officials said the survey numbers help them shift the emphases of education and law enforcement efforts to focus on problem areas.
Based on this year's survey, the county probably will introduce more education for middle school pupils about the dangers of tobacco, said Joanne Hayes, substance abuse prevention coordinator for the school system.
Others said the data help bolster grant requests and show parents that drugs and alcohol are problems in Carroll as much as anywhere else.
"Back in 1995 or 1996 when we were seeing the rise in heroin use, we felt like a lone voice in the desert," Myers said. "But the numbers helped us show that it wasn't a hunch or a fluke."
The survey also shows that teens say their parents strongly influence their choices to use or not use drugs and alcohol.
For example, 28.6 percent of those who said they had used drugs believed their parents would approve of the choice. Among those who said they hadn't used drugs, 9.2 percent believed their parents would approve of drug use.