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Violence, drugs, suicide – survey shows Buffalo students face myriad issues

A new survey of students in the Buffalo Public Schools offers a more detailed picture of the myriad issues and circumstances many kids face outside the classroom.

Of those who took the survey:

  • Nearly a third of high school students said they have seen someone shot, stabbed or beaten in their neighborhood.
  • About one in 10 said they often have been beaten or physically abused by a parent or adult inside their own home.
  • More than one in five said they lived with someone who was an alcoholic, drug user or problem gambler.
  • Fifteen percent said they have seriously considered suicide.
  • Four percent of high schoolers reported being homeless – most of them “couch surfing” from one friend or relative to the next.

Those are just a few of the results taken from a biennial survey of middle and high school students in Buffalo and used to better understand their personal experiences and behaviors so the district knows where to lend a hand.

It reaffirms what the district already knows well: Most of its students have extraordinary needs.

"Ninety percent of our kids have one or more challenges," said Superintendent Kriner Cash, "and when they have multiple challenges we have to do something to at least try to mitigate that issue so they can be ready to learn."

The findings are based on anonymous, self-reported responses from more than 12,000 middle and high school students in Buffalo who took the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey last October.

The survey was developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor risky health behavior among the nation’s youth. It has been administered by the Buffalo Public Schools every two years since 2011 and touches a wide range of sensitive topics, including drug and alcohol use, health and sexual activity.

But it also includes specific questions added by the school district to gain more insight on Buffalo students' traumatic childhood experiences, current living situations and most common reasons for school absences.

“This data is going to be extremely instrumental in expanding existing supports, creating new supports and engaging the school community in meeting the needs of our children,” said Eric Rosser, associate superintendent for student support services.

The district contracted with Via Evaluation to analyze the responses, which also provided some good news.

For instance, asthma rates are down.

The percentage of students having sex at an early age or with multiple partners also is down, as are tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use.

And fewer high schoolers in Buffalo reported texting while driving, as well as time spent in front of the television.

"I think the results show that we are moving in the right direction in some critical areas," said Catherine Flanagan-Priore, a child psychologist and School Board member for the Park District.

"It would be interesting to be able to better understand why there was such great variability in terms of survey completion at different schools," she said, "particularly because in order to truly map trends it's critical to make sure that the same population is being measured with each administration of the survey."

The survey also indicated some trends that have gotten worse over time and are ripe for intervention.

They include:

• Lack of safe sex. Despite decreases in sexual activity, the percentage of students who do not use condoms or another method to prevent pregnancy continued to rise.

• More computer time. While kids are cutting back on their television viewing, they’re increasing their time in front of the computer and with video games. Nearly half of all the students who responded reported spending three or more hours using the computer on a typical school day.

“This excessive use may be at the expense of physical activity and playing on sports team,” the report stated.

• Rise in some drug use. While small in numbers, the percentage of middle school students who reported using steroids and prescription drugs illegally rose, as did high schoolers using “harder drugs,” like cocaine and heroin.

• Rise in suicidal thoughts. More students have seriously considered suicide than at any point since 2011, although the rate is still below that for New York State.

In Buffalo, it was about 15 percent of high school students who responded and 18 percent among respondents in middle school.

“One of the things that stood out to me is the suicide ideation,” Rosser said. “I definitely want to focus on that.”

Rosser hesitated to pinpoint one issue as being of more importance than another, and cautioned about using the data to make generalizations. But he trusted that the data “speaks to what many of our students are feeling and experiencing.”

The results illustrate why the district has partnered with the nonprofit Say Yes Buffalo to provide mental health clinics and social service case workers in each of its schools, Cash said.

In fact, the results of the biennial survey routinely are used within the district, but for the first time will be shared with community partners and stakeholders in hopes of tackling more of these issues together, Rosser said.

“What I took away from this was really the need for the school community to come together to develop a plan – a response to address the needs that our students have vocalized through this,” Rosser said.

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