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New survey details trauma Buffalo students experience at home

A new survey of students in Buffalo Public Schools reinforces the extent of the problems the district is facing – not in the classroom, but in the home.

Fourteen percent of high school students who took the survey said they have been beaten or physically harmed by a parent or adult while in their house.

Sixteen percent have lived with someone diagnosed as mentally ill or suicidal.

Nearly one out of four has lived with someone who was an alcoholic, drug abuser or problem gambler.

More than a third said they have seen someone in their neighborhood shot, stabbed or beaten.

And more than 37 percent said they had a parent or adult in their home swear at or insult them.

It is difficult to put those figures into context, because this was the first time those questions were asked on the biennial survey and there is no comparison data, officials said.

But the results illustrate why the district has mental health clinics in 80 percent of its schools, said Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“These five items together are very powerful indicators,” Cash said.

The five trauma-related questions were included in a larger health survey of nearly 12,000 middle and high school students in Buffalo schools, and asked in collaboration with the University at Buffalo School of Social Work and its Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care.

Officials hope the questions provide the district with a better understanding about the level of trauma Buffalo students have experienced, so that the district can identify areas where teachers and administrators may need training.

Assunta Ventresca, the district’s health and wellness director, pointed out that research suggests trauma has a strong correlation to low academic achievement.

“We’re focusing on math and English, but if we don’t look at the ‘whole child’ we’re not going to change anything,” Ventresca said.

“We have to be responsive to the real needs of our students,” she said. “We have to change.”

Buffalo included the trauma-related questions in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor risky health behavior among the nation’s youth.

The district has administered the survey to its middle and high school students every two years since 2011. The survey – based on self-reported responses from students who remain anonymous – touches on a number of sensitive topics including drug use and sexual activity.

This year, the district contracted with Via Evaluation of Buffalo to analyze the responses.

The survey showed:

• Tobacco, alcohol and drug use were down. Forty percent of Buffalo high school students reported drinking alcohol while 33 percent reported ever using marijuana, a drop from 51 percent and 37 percent, respectively, since the 2013 survey. In fact, students in Buffalo report less tobacco, alcohol and drug use than students surveyed statewide, said Caroline Taggart, a senior evaluator with Via Evaluation.

• Sexual activity decreased. Thirty-eight percent of high school students reported engaging in sex, down from 44 percent in 2013. There also was a decline in the percentage of Buffalo high schoolers who said they had sex before the age of 13, 8 percent, and those who reported having sex with multiple partners, 12 percent.

• Fewer students using condoms. Among those in high school who reported being sexually active, nearly 40 percent said they did not use a condom during their last encounter. That figure is up from 35 percent two years ago.

• Fewer fights. Nearly 29 percent of high school students said they had been in a fight over the past year, down from 32 percent. Still, the figures show Buffalo students are at higher risk of getting involved in a physical altercation than students statewide.

• Fewer weapons in school. The percentage of high school students who reported carrying a weapon to school, 3 percent, or were threatened with one at school, 6 percent, was down. However, the percentage of students who said they generally carried a weapon climbed to nearly 13 percent.

“Carrying a weapon increased,” Taggart said. “However, carrying a weapon on school grounds decreased. So what this is indicating, most likely, is that students are carrying weapons in their communities or their neighborhoods, but they’re not bringing them to school.”

• More gaming and greater inactivity. Fifty percent of the students who responded to the survey reported playing video games or using the computer at home for more than three hours on an average school day. That’s up from 39 percent in 2013.

• Uptick in steroid use. The number of reported steroid users was very small – about 100 middle schoolers and 150 high schoolers.

“But,” Taggart said, “considering that all other drugs have decreased – including heroin and non-prescription drug use – it’s interesting that at both the middle and high school there were sizeable increases in steroid use.”

The district feels confident in its analysis of the survey based on the strong response from the nearly 12,000 middle and high school students in Buffalo.

The questionnaire also contains a series of built-in validity checks in circumstances where students might be dishonest in their responses, in which case that question or the entire survey is thrown out, Taggart said.

“We saw similar patterns at both the middle school and high school levels,” Taggart said. “That’s a really good indication of the validity of the survey. That, coupled with the high response rate – 74 percent – is a very good indicator that these are highly representative of the situation within the district in terms of risky behavior.”