The Other 60 Percent

Survey: Colorado youngsters fitter, safer

Students at Kennedy High School in Denver.Colorado youngsters tend to be a bit healthier, a bit fitter and a bit safer than students nationwide, and they seem to have gotten better in some areas than they were four years earlier.

That’s according to results, released Tuesday, of a survey of more than 1,500 Colorado students from 36 high schools around the state.

But there’s no reason for exultation, since the prevalence of risky and unhealthy behaviors is still alarmingly high, and in some cases it’s getting higher, state health and education officials say.

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“I think one of the positives that people should take away from the report is that in terms of physical activity, nutrition and obesity, Colorado youth are really doing better than the national average,” said Paula Gumina, a program coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education.

“But there are some things we really need to pay attention to,” she said. “Schools can use this data to really help make strategic decisions about programs and how they allocate resources based on what the youth are telling us they need.”

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey was administered to ninth- to 12th-graders at randomly selected high schools in the fall of 2009. Parts of the same survey were distributed to more than 16,000 teens nationwide in 42 states and 20 large urban school districts. This national Youth Risk Behavior Survey allows officials to compare Colorado students to their peers nationwide.

Key findings among the survey results:

Alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse

  • Tobacco, alcohol and other substance use overall was down slightly in 2009. Just over 72 percent or teens reported having tried alcohol, down from 76 percent; 43 percent reported trying cigarettes, down from 49 percent.
  • Marijuana use remained stable, at just over 42 percent of teens reporting having tried it. Since the survey was taken in 2009, it does not reflect potential effects of the state’s growth in medical marijuana usage. “But we are ramping up now to conduct this survey in the fall of 2011, so that will give us more updated information on tobacco, alcohol and other substance abuse,” Gumina said.
  • Colorado students in 2009 were less likely to report driving after drinking than in 2005, down from 11 percent to 7 percent. Yet a quarter of them reported riding with a driver who was drinking within the past 30 days. However, that’s still less than the national averages: 10 percent who have driven while drinking and 28 percent who have recently ridden with a driver who was drinking.

Depression

  • Depression remains a problem for just over a quarter of Colorado teens, just as in 2005, and nearly 14 percent reported seriously considering suicide in both years. Eleven percent actually made a suicide plan and 7.6 percent did attempt suicide, up slightly from 2005.
  • More significant was the growth in the number of teens who sustained an injury that required medical attention while attempting suicide: 3 percent, up from 1 percent in 2005. Nationwide, the number of suicide-related injuries has declined, from 3 to 2 percent. In  other mental health-related areas, Colorado mirrored national trends.

Diet and exercise

  • Close to 90 percent of Colorado students say they got at least one hour’s worth of physical activity at least one day a week in 2009, up from 80 percent in 2005. And 47 percent said they got a good workout at least five days out of seven, up from 37 percent in 2005. The national average remains 37 percent.
  • But the number of Colorado students who report attending a PE class at least one day a week has fallen, from just over 50 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2009. That’s far below the national average of 56 percent.
  • Only 20 percent of Colorado students were classified as overweight or obese in 2009, roughly the same number as in 2005, but significantly less than the nearly 28 percent of teens nationwide in those categories. However, far fewer reported exercising or eating less to lose weight than in 2005, and nationwide teens are far likelier to change their diets to lose weight than they are in Colorado.
  • Not surprisingly, while boys were slightly more likely to have a weight problem than girls, girls were far more likely to describe themselves as overweight, and vastly more likely to exercise or eat less to lose weight. This is true nationally as well.
  • From a nutrition standpoint, salad consumption is down slightly – 71.5 percent in 2005 ate at least one salad a week, compared to 67 percent in 2009 – but the percentage who report eating at least five fruits or vegetables every day is up, from 19 to 24 percent. Colorado teens do exceed the national averages in their consumption of fruits and veggies, while their milk and soda consumption is comparable.

Differences by ethnicity

  • A number of ethnic differences emerged in regards to risky behaviors among the teens. In Colorado, as well as the rest of the nation, Hispanic students were more likely to report being involved in a physical fight in the past year, and more likely to report being threatened with a weapon and missing school because they felt unsafe.
  • Unlike the rest of the country, Colorado Hispanic students were no more likely to experience relationship violence or forced sexual intercourse than were other students.
  • Bullying in Colorado also appears to be spread more evenly, with no significant differences between Hispanic and non-Hispanic youths reporting it, whereas nationwide, white non-Hispanic youth are more likely to be bullied.
  • Cigarette use is markedly higher among Hispanic students than non-Hispanic whites in Colorado, 55 percent to 39 percent, though that drops to 21 percent and 17 percent respectively when asked about smoking in the past 30 days, the survey shows. Nationally, those differences are even more pronounced.

Sexual activity

  • Sexual behavior remained pretty consistent between 2005 and 2009. Forty percent of high school students reported having had sex at least once in their lives, with close to 30 percent having a current sexual partner. That’s similar to national trends.

Violence and relationship abuse

  • Violence continues to plague a significant number of Colorado’s young people. Nearly a third of students reported engaging in a physical fight in the 12 months before taking the survey – roughly the same percentage as in 2005. And nearly a fifth, or 19 percent, reported having been bullied at school in the previous year. The bullying question was new so there is no point of comparison.
  • One behavior that appears to be up significantly is relationship violence. Just over 9 percent of youths reported having been hit by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the previous year, up from 6 percent in 2005, and 7.7 percent report having been forced to have sex, up from 5.1 percent. These results parallel findings nationwide.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”