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TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — How do local youth feel about school? How does their use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs compare to the national average? Tompkins County has surveyed thousands of local youth to examine substance use, family and community life and school.

Youth answered questions about using tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, opioids and other drugs. They also gave insight about parental involvement in school, their neighborhoods, clubs and activities, mental health and perception of cheating.

Nearly 4,000 students in seventh through 12th grades from 15 schools in Tompkins County responded to the survey that was conducted with the help of several agencies in the county.

The survey is broader than just alcohol and drugs, Kris Bennett, planner at the Tompkins County Youth Services Department, said.

“It’s about how young people are in our community, how young people are in their families, what we know about their school life,” Bennett said.

The youth survey is a collaborative effort between Tompkins County Youth Services, the Community Coalition for Healthy Youth and a federal grant, TST BOCES, the Alcohol & Drug Council and local schools. Students were surveyed in Fall 2016 and the results were recently presented to the Public Safety Committee. The survey has been done every two years since 2008.

Alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and other substance use

Alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly used substances by Tompkins County youth.

About 33 percent of 12th graders said they drank alcohol in the past 30 days and about 11 percent of high school students reported binge drinking in the past two weeks. One positive is that alcohol use is down in the community, which is in line with the national trend. Alcohol use in all grades decreased from 2014 to 2016.

“It doesn’t mean that there isn’t still room for improvement, but it’s going in the right direction. The age of first alcohol use is going up, that’s another good thing. It means kids are waiting a little longer to try alcohol for the first time,” Bennett said.

Youth are most likely to try alcohol and cigarettes around 13. Students usually first try marijuana closer to age 14.

Marijuana use is also trending down, Bennett said. However, marijuana use by 12th graders in Tompkins County is still higher than national peers. About 25 percent of 12th graders surveyed reported using marijuana in the past 30 days.

“So we still have work to do around marijuana,” Bennett said.

Alcohol and marijuana use by Tompkins County youth. Graphs from Communities that Care Youth Survey.

As students age, their perception that marijuana is harmful sharply decreases — much more than any other substance.

The survey found that 20 percent of high schoolers “think they’d be seen as cool if they used marijuana.” In seventh grade, students believe marijuana is about as harmful as alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs. But the perception of harm drops drastically after eighth grade. By 12th grade, only 44 percent of students believe regular marijuana use is harmful.

Marijuana being legalized across the country could be lowering students’ perception of harm, Bennett said.

“It’s kind of hard to think that it could be harmful if it’s being legalized and if you use the word medical in association with marijuana, it’s kind of hard to think there’s any problem with that,” Bennett said.

Students’ perception of harm for alcohol also decreases after seventh grade, but not as dramatically as marijuana. By 12th grade, 75 percent of students still believe regular alcohol use is harmful.

Cigarette use in almost all grades has steadily dropped since 2012, the survey shows. Just over 6 percent of 12th graders reported smoking in the past 30 days, which is below the national average of 10 percent for that grade. The only grade that did not show a decrease was 9th grade. For that grade, cigarette use actually went up in 2016 compared to 2014.

Tompkins County recently passed a law raising the tobacco purchase age to 21. The law is aimed at reducing the number of people of all ages who use tobacco, but particularly youth.

Related: Tompkins raises tobacco purchase age to 21

In Tompkins County, the use of heroin and prescription painkillers is low, but higher than the national average, the survey shows. About 1 percent of 12th graders in Tompkins County said they used opioids in the past 30 days versus 0.2 percent nationally, and 3.5 percent of 12th graders said they use prescription painkillers versus 1.7 percent nationally.

Most parents would disapprove if they used drugs, students said, and students who believe their parents would disapprove if they used substances are significantly less likely to use than youth whose parents do not disapprove.

“We know that that makes a huge difference in a young person’s decision on whether to use or not,” Bennett said.

School, community and home life

Though many questions cover alcohol and substance use, there were a number of questions that asked students about their home life, parental involvement in school, their mental health, extracurricular involvement and gauged some perceptions of school and community.

Mental health questions for Tompkins County youth. Chart from Communities that Care Youth Survey.

Students say there are lots of opportunities to get involved at school and in the community — and many do. About 83 percent of students said they participated in clubs or activities in the past year.

But though there are plenty of ways to get involved in the community, many youth reported frequent moves, which contributed to a low sense of attachment to their neighborhoods, the survey said. From eighth grade on, local youth are less likely than national peers to say their neighbors support and encourage them.

On the positive side, most Tompkins County students surveyed said they get C’s or better in school, feel safe at school, have many chances to talk one-on-one with teachers and usually try to do their best work at school. Most students also said cheating is not OK. In the 2016 survey, less students overall reported feeling sad or depressed most days.

On the negative side, 40 percent of students said school rules are fairly enforced. Only 37 percent of students said peers treat each other with respect.

Around 25 percent of students said they often or almost always hate being in school.

What parents can take away

The survey also asked students about their home life. Most youth in Tompkins County said their parents value them, encourage them and monitor their behavior. Most students also they feel close to their parents.

Parents being involved at school has positive impacts for students, the survey found. Students with parents more involved in school were more likely to like school, get higher grades.

The survey shows that youth start young when trying cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, around age 13. So it’s important that parents talk to their kids about alcohol and other substances early, Bennett said, because kids do listen to parents even if they think they don’t.

“Sometimes parents wait to talk about alcohol until their kids are of driving age because there’s always the concern about drinking and driving and accidents, and that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be, but if we look at what age alcohol use is — it’s 13.3 years — it’s not 16,” Bennett said. “So parents should be talking to the kids before, way before that in middle school not in high school.”

Read the summary report here.

Featured image: Flickr photo

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.