CHESTERTOWN - Far fewer students in the North Warren Central School are experimenting with alcohol and marijuana than just several years ago, and those trying it are waiting later to do it, according to survey results released this week.
School officials greeted the news with enthusiasm, crediting character education classes and anti-drug programs including DARE offered in the school system.
"I'm thrilled with the results," North Warren Guidance Counselor Mike Therio said Monday. "These figures are extremely encouraging, and they show that things are moving in a positive direction at North Warren."
All grade levels reported decreases greater than 20 percent in lifetime use of alcohol, and the predominant age of first alcohol use rose from age 10 to 14, according to the survey, which guaranteed anonymity to the students.
The survey was conducted independently in September by the Council for Prevention of Alcohol & Substance Abuse, a regional agency that sponsors programs for dozens of schools regionally.
In Spring 2006, 67.5 percent of all ninth graders reported they used alcohol during the past 12 months, but in Fall 2008, only 20.9 percent said they had, reflecting a two-thirds decrease, Therio said.
Nearly all other grade levels reflected similar substantial decreases in alcohol use.
Marijuana use dropped 13 percent between 2004 and 2008 with largest decreases in grades 9 and 10, according to the Council. Also, student perception and adults believe it is wrong for teens to use alcohol increased 25 percent, and with marijuana, it was up 12 percent during that time.
Therio said another survey result impressed him perhaps the most.
Students' perception that they would be viewed as "being cool" for drinking, decreased 31 percent during that time, and for marijuana, decreased by 20 percent.
Half as many North Warren students or less in grades 8 and 9 reported ever using alcohol than the average for Warren and Washington counties, and declines in reported marijuana use were nearly as steep.
"This is huge," he said. "A cultural change is occurring and we hope it continues."
Therio and high school principal Theresa Andrew credited a variety of factors, including the Drug Abuse Resistance Education DARE program, Cornell Cooperative Extension's "strengthening Families" program, the local Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter, and the school's ongoing character education programs.
Andrew praised the Warren County Sheriff's Dept. for sponsoring the DARE program, and assigning officer Greg Seeley to the school.
"Greg Seeley attends lots of school events; he has a great relationship with the students, and if kids have concerns, they talk with him," she said. "Greg is a part of our North Warren family and has a great impact on both our student community and the greater community."
Therio said Seeley creates a close bond with the students, so students take his advice of alcohol and marijuana abstinence to heart.
"Greg is an authority figure but also an advocate and confidant to the students," he said. "His close relationship with students helps them overcome peer pressure and helps them say 'No' to substance abuse and destructive decisions."
Andrew said another program, the school's Home Base, which gives students an opportunity to talk things out with staff, is also helpful.
"We've really upped our character education programs in recent years," she said.