HD51 - A Review of Virginia Youth Drug and Alcohol Survey Efforts

Executive Summary:
The purpose of this study was to review and describe previous survey efforts used to measure drug and alcohol use by youth in Virginia. As directed by HJR 613, this study was requested to assist localities in drug and alcohol prevention and program planning. This review revealed that statewide drug and alcohol survey efforts of youth have been conducted in Virginia in 1989, 1992, and 1993; however, the results of those surveys do not provide a comprehensive picture of drug and alcohol use in Virginia. In addition, these findings could not be compared to national survey findings because the samples of students who participated in these studies did not represent the entire state of Virginia. Furthermore, the results of these statewide surveys were outdated and were not useful for examining within-state differences because findings were not reported for individual localities.

Local Survey Efforts

Because statewide survey efforts ceased after 1993, many localities have conducted their own survey efforts to measure alcohol and drug use by local youth. Eighty-two percent of the local Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Coordinators from the school divisions that responded to our questionnaire indicated that their school division had administered a survey within the past ten years. The remaining 18% either had not administered or were unsure if they had administered a drug and alcohol survey.

There was a great deal of variation in the survey methodologies used by localities that had administered drug and alcohol surveys. Over sixteen different types of drug and alcohol surveys were administered throughout the state between 1987 and 1997. Furthermore, the grade levels that were included in the survey samples ranged from fourth to twelfth grade. Because of these differences in survey methodologies, survey findings could not be summarized to provide a statewide estimate of youth drug and alcohol use. Additionally, the findings could not be used to make comparisons between localities. Therefore, local survey findings are not presented in this report.

However, a number of interesting findings were obtained from questionnaires completed by the local Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Coordinators (SDFSCACs) throughout the state. When asked to describe their most recent youth drug and alcohol survey efforts, most SDFSCACs indicated they had used either the PRIDE Survey, a locally developed survey or the Virginia Student Survey. Only 55% of the SDFSCACs reported their locality had administered a survey since 1994. Additionally, most SDFSCACs reported the results of their most recent surveys were useful for general planning or benchmarking purposes. About half of the SDFSCACs reported they had plans to administer a drug and alcohol survey in the future, and a majority of all respondents (78%) reported their locality would be interested in participating in a future statewide survey effort.

Drug and Alcohol-Related School Incidents/Offenses

Because survey findings could not be summarized to provide statewide estimates of drug and alcohol use or to make comparisons between localities, youth drug and alcohol offense data were also collected from the Virginia Department of Education, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of State Police to provide a more standardized measure of youth alcohol and drug use. The findings indicated more drug and alcohol related arrests for youth between the ages of 15 and 17 than youth age 14 and under. The findings from these data also indicated substantial differences between localities with populations under 100,000 and localities with populations over 100,000. On average, the smaller localities had relatively higher rates of students possessing drugs and alcohol on school grounds and arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol. The larger localities had relatively higher rates of marijuana and cocaine-related arrests.

Because the drug and alcohol offense data were designed to provide statewide data, the number of offenses were readily available in a uniform format for all localities in Virginia. Despite the standardized format of these data, however, there are several limitations inherent in using these findings for assessing youth drug and alcohol use. First, these data only included the number of youth who had been formally identified as drug and alcohol-involved by police and/or schools. They do not include youth who may be at earlier stages of substance abuse or youth who have not been identified by authorities. Second, differences in arrest rates between localities may represent variations in detection and reporting, rather than actual differences in the incidence of such offenses.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Appropriately administered, standardized youth surveys may be more useful than drug and alcohol offense data for measuring drug and alcohol use in the general population. In addition to potentially identifying drug and alcohol-involved youth who have not been formally identified by police and the schools, standardized surveys may also eliminate difficulties in interpretation due to variations in detection and reporting between localities. Evaluators recommend the following strategies to guide future drug and alcohol use assessments:

• Localities should use survey instruments to measure drug and alcohol use, as this method appears to offer the most feasible approach to assessing youth drug and alcohol use in the general population.

• Local school divisions, Offices on Youth, and substance abuse agencies should attempt to coordinate youth drug and alcohol assessment efforts and the dissemination of survey findings for program planning purposes.

• Virginia should consider creating a task-force to identify a uniform survey to be recommended for use throughout the state, thereby enhancing future efforts to compile survey findings. This task force could also be responsible for identifying funding sources and the mechanism through which the surveys should be administered.

• The results of drug and alcohol surveys should be considered in the allocation of funds for drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs funds (e.g., SDFSCA monies, federal substance abuse prevention and treatment block grants). These findings should also be used for program evaluations of drug prevention and treatment programs.