By Doug Oakley
When it comes to marijuana and alcohol use, Berkeley High School students surpass their California counterparts, according to a recently released survey.
Students who took the survey also reported coming to school drunk or high at almost double the rate of other California students.
While school officials are quick to point to what they say is a "permissiveness" in Berkeley parents' attitudes about marijuana and alcohol use by children, they also admitted that they have done little educating to counteract the trend.
The good news in the California Healthy Kids Survey released by the Berkeley school board Nov. 10 is that the percentage of Berkeley students who reported marijuana or alcohol use in the past 30 days had come down slightly from the last survey, in 2008.
The survey -- administered in January to kids in grades 5, 7, 9 and 11 -- asked a variety of health-related questions, including some about drug and alcohol use.
About 38 percent of Berkeley 11th-graders surveyed this year reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, down from about 45 percent in the previous survey, taken in 2008.
Still, the city's rate is far higher than the 23 percent of California 11th-graders who reported marijuana use this year and the 21 percent nationwide.
About 46 percent of Berkeley 11th-graders reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, down from about 52 percent in 2008. Again, this number was higher than what was seen statewide -- at 42 percent -- but lower than the nationwide rate of 52 percent.
In answering the question: "During your life, have you ever been drunk/high on school property," 48 percent of Berkeley 11th-graders said yes, but only 23 percent of students statewide answered affirmatively, the survey said.
Addressing drug and alcohol use among students should be a "shared responsibility" between the schools and parents, Berkeley's top school official said.
"There's a permissiveness when rates are this high," said Bill Huyett, Berkeley Unified School District superintendent. "We need help from the community, and the schools also need to say, 'This is not OK to be high at school or even on your own time.' This is a big problem for our school district and it's a big problem for our community."
Berkeley's school board and its administrators have known about their students' high levels of alcohol and drug use since 2006, when the first survey was administered.
After the 2008 survey was administered and reported, the school board and administrators convened a task force to study the problem.
Today, they are beginning to train teachers to implement a middle school curriculum called Project Alert. The program, according to its website, dissuades students from drug use, teaches skills and strategies to resist drugs, and "establishes new nonuse attitudes and beliefs." It costs $150 per teacher.
Susan Craig, Berkeley's director of student services, said, "It shouldn't have taken two years" to start teaching students about the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use after the 2008 survey was released.
"But we're moving forward," Craig added. "The improvement in the rates of use from 2008 is nothing to sing and dance about, but what is different is we're moving forward with more formalized education."
Project Alert will be administered in the three middle schools, she said. It has nine lessons, but the district will begin by teaching three of those lessons. About 15 middle school teachers are now being trained, Craig said.
In addition, the district has applied for a grant to implement a curriculum in the high school called Project Toward No Drug Use. The district will not know for a few more months whether it got the grant.
Officials at the high school are also planning 15 classroom presentations on the dangers of drug and alcohol use this year, and a consultant recently gave a talk to about 125 parents of high school students, Craig said.
"We do have a responsibility to educate students about drug and alcohol use," Craig said. "We have a responsibility to keep students safe and alcohol and drugs interfere with that. They interfere with learning and social development and they are depressants."