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High stress stalks AHS students, risk survey shows

Data track suicidal thoughts, vaping, sexual behavior

Arlington High School students suffer from an overwhelming amount of stress, reported Sarah Burd, director of school counseling, citing results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) questionnaireSchool Committee logo

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Of the 970 AHS respondents, 82.6 percent of those students reported they felt that degree of stress at school. This percentage was the highest of any high school in the group surveyed, the 12-town Middlesex League. Burd responded that she found this finding “most alarming but not surprising.”

This was one of many disturbing findings, Burd reported to the School Committee members at its regular meeting Sept. 26. The results were broken down by five topics: Mental Health, Personal Safety and Violence, Substance Use, Smoking, Sexual Health and Nutrition. The major focus of the report was on the high school results, with some data from the middle school included.

While these reports consumed most of the meeting, the committee also reassessed current and future enrollment and heard a report from Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr. about the department's smart goals. Superintendent Kathleen Bodie and Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason were absent.

Student mental health report: 'I know we can do better'

After reporting the 82.6 percent of the student respondents said that they were under an overwhelming amount of stress, Burd gave additionally alarming percentages on other mental health measures such as 11 percent of students reported having serious thoughts of suicide and 15.3 percent had thoughts of wanting to injury themselves.

An even higher percentage, 25.3, of students checked they felt hopeless or sad every day for two weeks in a row.  Burd explained the last statistic meant that the students were in the early stages of a depressive illness.

Burd said the survey showed similar trends of overwhelming stress in the middle schools, Gibbs and Ottoson. Middle-school students took a questionnaire with similar topics but worded differently from the one high schoolers took. Of the 1,146 middle schoolers, 32.7 reported that school demands and expectations were the source of most negative stress. These include “keeping up with school work, having a busy schedule and having to study things you do not understand.”

A slightly higher percentage of middle schoolers compared to high school students, 15 percent, responded that they had serious thoughts of suicide, while 8.6 percent had made a plan for suicide in the past.

Note the difference between the percentage of high school students who reported an overwhelming amount of stress, 82.6, and the 61.5 percent who say they have “a trusted adult in school that they can talk to if they have a problem.” That troubled Burd, and she said there could be much improvement in educating students about how to approach faculty and staff, in addition to informing faculty and staff about this issue.

She announced that for the first time in years that the counseling department is fully staffed, now at 250 students per counselor,  and that would make access to help more possible. She also planned resources for suicide prevention and conversations with students about stress.

Read various document about the department >> 

Personal safety, violence

Cindy Bouvier, a consultant to the department, reported about the student responses on Personal Safety and Violence. A surprising percentage of high school students, 14 percent, reported that they “have been physically abused by a parent or adult in their homes.” A lower percentage of the high school students, 11.1, reported being in a physical fight. Just as surprising, middle school students reported that 31.8 percent had been in a physical fight.

Students at both the high school and middle school were asked about their experience with bullying. Of the high school students responding, 12.8 percent reported being bullied on school property.  For middle schoolers, the percentage was slightly higher, 14.4, but the percentage for electronic bullying was 30.2 percent of respondents. 

Substance abuse: Alcohol still high, e-cigarettes increasing

Karen Koretsky, director of Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition, presented the data on substance abuse. She said that alcohol use is still high among high school students, with 58 percent having taken a drink and 25 percent using alcohol. Of those using, 12 percent binge-drink.

However, the data show an even more dramatic increase in the percentage of students using e-cigarettes (vaping) -- from 8.3 percent in 2017 to 22.6 percent in 2019. Thirty-eight percent of the students who have ever used e-cigarettes said they recognized the use was “a great risk” but persisted. Of high school students reporting, 21 percent currently use marijuana. 

Koretsky told the committee that to combat substance abuse, the youth safety coalition established a vaping-cessation program at the Robbins Library and the school instituted a policy of not suspending on first violation and, instead, engage in student education.

The survey says that the percentage of high school students who have ever vaped is 38 precent. 

Other health concerns: Nutrition, sleep, sexual health

The major nutrition issue, Bouvier said, is the consumption of soda. Arlington high school students report that they drink one soda or more a day. The amount of sleep each night for high school students remains an issue, as 72.2 percent of high school students do not get eight hours of sleep on school nights.

The lack of the use of a condom by the 13.8 percent of high school students who report they are sexually active means that they are not protected from STDs. Only 2.3 percent of middle school students report having had sexual intercourse, but 50 percent reported they did not use a condom.

In response to school committee members questions, Burd explained that reporting to the school committee was only the first step. They will consult with parents and students to create programs to address the issues revealed in the survey.


In other business, the committee decided it should gather data about current space in the elementary schools and the latest enrollment figures to see whether another enrollment-projection study needs to be done soon.

They also heard McNeal report about district goals. The committee asked MacNeal to consider whether there is some way of evaluating the success of these goals as all move forward.

The committee adjourned at 8:50.

Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, 2017 and before

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.

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