A report this month about substance abuse prevention efforts at Evanston Township High School concluded that more emphasis needs to be placed on sending students marijuana prevention messages.

Data gathered from student surveys shows that reported alcohol, marijuana and prescription drug use has remained fairly steady over the last four years. Marijuana use is reported to be less than alcohol. Forty-three percent of surveyed students reported that they had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days and 30% reported having used marijuana; 4% reported taking prescription drugs. While drug use is not necessarily increasing, what alarms ETHS substance abuse staff is perceived risk. “Although marijuana use rates are lower than alcohol, the perceived risk of using marijuana is less than alcohol,” stated the memo to the District 202 School Board. “Data indicates that an average of 3% of students perceive no risk from drinking alcohol while and average of 28% of students perceive no risk from smoking marijuana.”

One reason for adolescents’ opinions on drug use is said to do with their perception of use among their peers. A January 2015 article in Medical News Today states, “Teenagers tend to overstate the amount of drugs and alcohol that their peers use.” A 2014 survey of ETHS students supports this as well. Students surveyed then said they believed 64% of their peers drink, when actually 43% reported doing so over the past 30 days. For marijuana, the perception was that 63% of students were smoking, while only 30% reported doing so. “These misconceptions could in turn lead to adolescents engaging in risky behavior in order to follow social norms that do not exist,” said Anna Landmeier, Student Assistance Program Social Worker to the Board.

The increase in states legalizing marijuana for recreational and medical use could also add to the perception that marijuana is not harmful, according to ETHS substance abuse staff. Currently, almost half of states have legalized marijuana to some degree.

School Connectedness Also a Factor

Data from the 2014 Illinois Youth Survey of ETHS students indicate that nearly one-third of students do not feel connected to peers or adults at ETHS, checking that they either disagree or are indifferent regarding the statement “I feel close to people at this school.”

Research demonstrates a strong relationship between school connectedness, educational outcomes (such as better attendance and higher grades and test scores) and less engagement in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that, because school personnel serve as highly influential role models, adolescents are less likely to initiate marijuana use, cigarette smoking, drinking to get drunk and engage in other risky behaviors if they perceive that their teachers care about them.

What Will Be Done?

Current Substance Abuse Prevention and PEER Services efforts at ETHS will include updated prevention messages on the benefits of being marijuana-free and information regarding the harmful effects of marijuana. Wellness teachers, who 72% of ETHS students found “believable” in a 2014 survey, will be trained on updated information regarding drug education and effective substance abuse prevention. Currently, ETHS athletic coaches are similarly trained. Efforts to increase school connectedness will be implemented through Random Acts of Kindness (RAK), a classroom/club/sport-based activity to give anonymous acts of kindness to others in the school community.

Families, Community Play a Role

Board members pointed out that ETHS is not the only place where substance abuse should be discussed.

 “It is essential that parents be involved with other parents on this too,” said Jonathan Baum. “Some parents think it’s O.K. [to condone drug use]. We need to eliminate safe havens in our neighbors’ homes.”

The community, not ETHS, has a drinking problem, said Board member Bill Geiger. “Parent engagement is critical.” Parents and the community need to be engaged because this is “something we need to do together.”

Ms. Landmeier stressed that ETHS is looking at ways to further educate parents and community members on how to have meaningful conversations on drug use with their children. She also said that the problem of adolescent drug abuse is “everywhere,” that different suburbs have different but similar trends, so this is not an issue unique to Evanston.