Survey Reveals Behavioral Trends at PA

The results from the April 2008 Youth Risk Behavior Survey have shown that PA students engage in less risky behavior than teenagers nationwide, on average. The survey, conducted about a month into last year’s spring term by PA’s Community Health Team (CHT), questioned Andover students about their drug and alcohol use, sexual behaviors, emotional states and sleep habits. The results of the survey, which were compiled by researchers at the Dartmouth Medical School, mostly investigated students’ activities on campus. The numbers were then compared to national averages from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to place the results in context. The Community Health Team, which is comprised of faculty members and administrators from Andover’s support and counseling services, sponsored the survey. The team is meeting today, Friday, to “talk about the implications of the survey results,” said Rebecca Sykes, Associate Head of School and a member of the CHT. Dr. Max Alovisetti, Director of the Graham House Counseling Center and Chair of the CHT, said that, for the most part, the results of the survey were expected. “It’s not necessarily a surprise, but gratifying that on all the major areas of concern, Phillips Academy students are more positive, more favorable than the national trends,” said Alovisetti. Thirty-one percent of PA students used alcohol in April 2008, compared to 45 percent nationally. Among all four classes from Juniors to Seniors, more males admitted to using alcohol that month than girls. Seniors were also more likely to consume alcohol. Eighteen percent of PA students participated in binge drinking in April 2008. Binge drinking is defined as taking five or more shots of alcohol in one sitting. “For myself, 18 percent of students binge drinking in the last month [is] a serious medical concern. I and a lot of other people take it very seriously,” said Alovisetti. Sykes said, “Boys are more heavily involved in heavy drinking—that was pretty striking to me.” Nationally, 26 percent of teenagers reported having engaged in binge drinking. Although the percentage of risky behavior at PA is less than national trends, the CHT still plans to lower the amount of risky behavior on campus through educational programs. “I’m pleased, but not satisfied. How can we possibly be satisfied when 18 percent of students are doing risky [binge] drinking?” he said. Pat Davison, Director of Academic Support and a member of the CHT, wrote in an email that her overall reaction to the survey results was hopeful. She wrote that it was “reassuring to see that students at PA are, in general, exercising good judgment and placing themselves at less risk than their nationwide counterparts.” Two percent of Andover students also admitted that they had attempted suicide in the year before April 2008. Out of a student body of over 1,100, this percentage indicates that over 20 students attempted suicide from April 2007 to April 2008. Alovisetti said that two percent was probably an accurate estimation of the amount of attempted suicides among PA stuents. “That number was a wakeup call to us,” Sykes said, “to imagine 20 students had attempted suicide and only a fraction of that number had presented themselves [to Isham or Graham House].” “We take it very seriously,” Alovisetti continued. “Any potential of suicide risk and we intervene vigorously.” He added that some of these attempted suicides may have occurred off-campus, during school breaks. Sixteen percent of PA students admitted to marijuana use in April 2008, compared to 20 percent on the national level. The results found that ninth graders were least likely to use marijuana, with other grades equally likely. Almost half of all Andover students, 42 percent, answered that it was “easy” to acquire marijuana. Nine percent of students admitted to using study drugs such as Adderol and Ritalin. Seven percent of students said that they used prescription pain medicine, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, without a doctor’s prescription. Many Andover students also felt a fair amount of stress. Forty-four percent of students said that they felt moderate “pressure or stress” in the year preceding April 2008. Thirty-eight percent said that they felt “very” stressed, and seven percent reported that they experienced stress to the point where they “can’t stand it.” Girls report more stress than boys, according to Sykes. She said that the Community Health Team hopes to learn more about the root causes of these trends in upcoming months. Sykes and Alovisetti said that they do not know how the CHT will specifically address the results of the survey, but they hope to plan forums and educational programs with students in order to identify the origins of risky behavior on campus. In 1999, school administrators conducted a less comprehensive survey on drug, alcohol and sexual behavior at Andover. Compared to the 2008 survey, the CHT found that a higher percentage of students now admit that they have used alcohol. In 1999, 45 percent of students said that they had never consumed alcohol in their lifetime, but in 2008, the percentage dropped to 32. The researchers at the Dartmouth Medical School accounted for major discrepancies in the survey results, such as responses from students who may not have taken the survey seriously, according to Alovisetti. Researchers were able to identify data sheets that were “patently false” or “statistically inconsistent and inaccurate,” he said. “Nationally, you’ll have the same percentage of people who don’t take [the survey] seriously,” said Alovisetti. “We feel that most of the data is accurate,” said Sykes, “except in the interpretation of the question.” According to Alovisetti and Sykes, no other peer boarding school has released results from similarly comprehensive surveys on student behavior. “In retrospect, our greatest disappointment is that we were unable to compare ourselves to peer boarding schools,” said Sykes. PA students may exhibit less risky behavior because of Andover’s admissions process, said Alovisetti. “Wanting to be here, wanting to do good work, and wanting to be successful—it is difficult to have those things and engage in risky behavior,” he said. “When you matriculate here, you buy into the culture where the Blue Book says if you break rules, you risk your place here,” said Sykes.