Survey Says One in Six CHS Students Contemplated Suicide

(l to r) Chelmsford High School dean Josh Blagg and principal Charlie Caliri (credit: Anne-Marie Fiore)
(l to r) Chelmsford High School dean Josh Blagg and principal Charlie Caliri (credit: Anne-Marie Fiore)

Part one of a two part transcript of the Jan. 7, 2013 Chelmsford School Committee meeting. For part two, click here.

7:00 to 7:03 p.m.

School Committee chairman Mike Rigney began the meeting by notifying those watching at home that School Committee meetings will now be shown on Comcast channel 29 and Verizon channel 36.

The board approved its consent agenda and then heard reports from the student representative.

7:03 to 7:05 p.m.

Superintendent Frank Tiano shared an update about more information now on the schools department’s website about P.R.I.D.E, the school district’s overarching principles for students.

7:05 to 8:26 p.m.

Principal Charlie Caliri, the second year principal at Chelmsford High School, began his presentation on youth risk behavior, also introducing several colleagues.

He said that a survey on youth risk behavior is given by the state to 60 high schools across the Commonwealth every odd year to focus on risk-based behaviors. Chelmsford was chosen randomly 2007, 2009 and 2013.

The data for those surveys is not available, although there is a locally done survey by the high school on even numbered years.

Caliri said that the 2012 survey had a much larger survey size than the 2013 survey done by the state, providing information about other surveys given during earlier years as well.

He said that the purpose of his visit to the committee on this evening was to look at statistics obtained by the survey over the past ten years while also looking at things done to work on the issue.

The first topic was alcohol. It was noted that alcohol is often seen by students as “less risky” than other drugs, and that it is a gateway drug.

In 2011, the number of students who answered that they have ever tried alcohol was lower than the national average, but students answering that they had tried alcoholic beverage within the past month or engaged in “binge drinking” (more than five beers in one sitting) was higher than the national average.

In Chelmsford, binge drinking was higher than the national and state averages and that Chelmsford students also had driven with drunken drivers and had been involved in drunk driving more than the state and national average.

Efforts to stop this included speakers of similar age to the students who had been impacted by drunk driving as well as a mock traffic accident.

Approximately a third of all students attended parties where alcohol use by teenagers was allowed.

Chelmsford High School freshmen undergo a ten week program related to alcohol abuse that is a graduation requirement, including things such as fatal vision goggles.

Juniors and seniors at Chelmsford High School also revisit these lessons.

There is an upcoming program entitled “the Tailor’s Message” on  Feb. 10

The next portion of the presentation discussed bullying.

There was a major dropoff in bullying from 2004 to 2012, which was well below state and national averages, with bullying decreasing with age.

This was in part to the PRIDE program and other initiatives.

The district began surveying electronic bullying in 2012, with bullying lower among male students except for seniors, although it decreased for both genders as they got older.

That maturity came in part from students eventually realizing how destructive bullying can be and that all bullying reports will be taken seriously in a respectful manner.

The next part of the meeting revolved around mental health, with 12 percent of students in 2012 in Chelsmford contemplating suicide or considering harming themselves, which was lower than state and national averages, but still considered far too high.

Three in four students said in 2012 that they had at least one adult in the schools they can talk to if they had a problem, a ten percent increase since 2004, thanks to programs within the school such as the STEP program as well as the work of educators.

There are also presentations on self-injury by speaker such as Westford’s Sue Hanly.

Although improvement has been made, it was said that Chelmsford can do better.

The next part of the survey was surrounding marijuana, which was not used as much as alcohol, but was still reported as being used by approximately 600 students, or a third of all students saying they tried it at least once.

This was lower than state and national averages.

It was noted that many students don’t see marijuana and alcohol as “drugs.”

Approximately 20 percent of students reported using marijuana in the past 20 days and five percent before the age of 13, again lower than state and national averages.

Other reported drugs that were abused by students, such as cocaine, MDMA, Heroin and prescription drugs, were reported at far lower levels, approximately 130 students.

It was noted that one student is still way too many and that the school is vigilant against these drugs as well as alcohol and marijuana acting as gateway drugs.

Many programs related to stopping drug abuse were mentioned.

The next portion of the presentation surrounded sexual behavior, with approximately 30 percent of students saying they had engaged in sexual behavior at some point, lower than state and national averages.

However, it was noted that the incidence of sexual intercourse reported by students grows every year.

There is a program at freshman year relating to human sexuality, with another elective course that can provide additional information.

In the past several years, the human sexuality curriculum is expected to be completely revamped due to the survey and what’s been heard from students.

Approximately ten percent of students reported using drugs or alcohol prior to sexual intercourse, a higher number than earlier years, but lower than state and national averages.

Other studies included

·         Amount of time looking at “screens” (i.e. – phones, computers, television, etc.), with approximately 40 percent saying they spend less than an hour per day and approximately 50 percent saying they spend one to two hours.

·         A look at texting while driving and sexting, with approximately 70 percent of students in 2012 saying they text while driving and an average of approximately 20 percent sexting.

·         While over two in three students said they engage in exercise, less than half eat breakfast which, while not as harmful as drugs, could be damaging to student performance. However, many students do eat “crash and burn” breakfasts such as a cup of coffee.

Additional grant funding may be needed for future surveys, but it has been significant for helping to gauge student behaviors.

School Committee member Evelyn Thoren made a comment about a graduate requirement for 10th, 11th and 12th grade relating to these issues.

School Committee member Nick DiSilvio asked about the cost of the survey and if any local groups had been reached to for sponsorship.

Caliri said it cost $4500 and Lowell General paid for the survey in 2012.

DiSilvio asked about the suicide rate and asked if there was any thought about a student hotline, which he felt would be effective in addressing the problem. He also noted that the percentage is 175 kids, which brought the topic home.

School Committee member Al Thomas said that everyone in the school who is an adult can help students.

School Committee Barbara Skaar asked a question regarding the question relating to the parties at home, with DiSilvio saying it seemed high.

Skaar then asked about self-harm, with Caliri saying the question mentioned cutting, hurting or bruising without the desire to die.

Skaar asked if there are any programs to help prevent red flags, with some of them coming on MCAS and early release days.

DiSilvio mentioned that there are some programs done in the beginning of the year and that educators are aware of single incidents that might cause concern.

It was said that there is extensive mentoring training between teachers and that development of other issues relating to helping students and seeing signs of problems is continuous.

DiSilvio said it would behoove the district for someone with a distinct skill set or someone outside the town with that skill set to pick up on that behavior, with it being noted that many educators take specialized training.

Skaar asked if the schools have any communication with the medical community to keep track of medical abuse. There is, and it was explained that if someone not in intense pain takes a painkiller, it creates an intense high.

Caliri said educators are proactive in addressing issues surrounding these topics on a daily basis.

Thomas talked about a trend in recent years and praised the educators.

School Committee chairman Mike Rigney asked if the screen data was accurate with Caliri replying that it was self-reported.

Rigney then asked about the breakfast data and if that had any relation to the hour the students leave the house.

DiSilvio said that two of his five children get upset stomachs if they eat breakfast.

On sexual activity, he asked about use of condoms by students during sexual activity, leading to a discussion on analysis of these numbers, asking if there were margins of error for these results.

Caliri said that in itself would be a lengthy presentation, with Rigney adding a question regarding “opt-out” options and the difference between surveys that have more students taking them.

Caliri said that more recent surveys are more reliable given their larger sample size, and that recent surveys and surveys in the near future are expected at around 90 percent.

He also noted that not much emphasis is being placed on the state surveys since they have smaller sample sizes.

DiSilvio discussed the opt-out students who may be the ones that really need help.

Rigney then asked if recent bullying laws in 2010 impacted the survey, also asking about “plus block” helping connect students to the school.

Caliri replied that plus block was added seven years ago, with Rigney replying by saying that he’d like more things like plus block as responses to this data. He also asked if it was ethical to randomly survey the students and also asked the students’ views on the surveys.

The students do respond on the survey itself on every survey according to the educators.

There was more discussion and Rigney thanked the educators for their time.  

Terri Anstiss January 08, 2014 at 04:58 PM
With all due respect Mr. Thomas, while "all adults" CAN HELP students... I don't believe anyone has addressed the problem of STIGMA that surrounds mental illness and substance abuse. Stigma is a very REAL issue especially for teens who are trying to "fit in" -- Teens should have a private, reliable source they can access such as the local hotline and mental health PROFESSIONAL (not a guidance counselor!) . Teens are not always going to speak up... In fact more often than not I am sure they won't. What good does it do to talk "at" the kids with these "programs" when you're not really reaching them and you just end up putting them into "resource rooms" and "special classes" which only further STIGMATIZES them on top of already being stigmatized for having mental illness and/or substance abuse issues?! I'd like to see Chelmsford spending more money on real solutions that address real-world problems such as these rather than spending so much time, money and focus on TURF FIELDS!


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