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January 26, 2022

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A disturbing picture of life for middle school students

One in five students surveyed in 2009 admit to intentionally hurting themselves

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The School District will hold a workshop -- open to parents, students, staff and community members -- to review the Youth Risk Behavior Survey findings from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 3 at Silvestri Middle School, 1055 Silverado Ranch Blvd., Las Vegas. For information, call 799-2348.

Silvestri Middle School

When it came time for the biennial statewide survey of middle school students, the Clark County School District added questions to dig deeper into students’ overall health and welfare.

The findings are tantamount to a cry for help.

Nearly one in five students surveyed in 2009 admits to using methods such as cutting and burning to intentionally harm themselves. Nearly that many of the surveyed students — in grades 6-8 — said they had gone hungry in the prior month because there wasn’t enough food at home. And close to a third of the students said they had been bullied at school in the prior year, with half of those attacks launched through digital means such as e-mail, text messaging or Web sites.

“We don’t want to just tell people we think this is happening,” said Mary Pike, the School District administrator overseeing the survey. “Now we can say we know this is happening.”

Some of the issues are likely linked to Southern Nevada’s dismal economic climate, as students’ home lives are suffering, experts say. Cyberbullying is a national problem that appears to be taking root locally.

The Nevada Youth Risk Behavior Survey, given every two years by the state education department in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quizzes students about behaviors and attitudes toward sex, drugs and personal safety. For the most recent survey, a sample of 2,085 students was drawn from 82 public high schools throughout the state to represent the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Nevada. Parents must give permission for students to participate. The responses are kept anonymous, and the results typically mirror findings in other research.

The high school results are compiled by the CDC and will be released as a national profile of teen behavior this summer. The School District surveyed 8,500 students in grades 6-12, which included some students whose answers were used in the statewide sampling. With a grant from the CDC, the district added 14 questions for middle schoolers. The questions were chosen — after much consideration and debate by a team of district educators — to reflect rising areas of concern at local campuses, said Pike, director of science, health and foreign language for the district.

The data are intended to help the district — as well as the larger community — shape programs and services to improve the outlook for Clark County’s youth.

Responses to some of the new questions found nearly 18 percent of students said they had purposely hurt themselves (without wanting to die), including cutting or burning; more than 16 percent of students said they sometimes — if not most of the time or always — were hungry in the 30 days before the survey because there wasn’t enough food at home; and 31.5 percent of students said they had been bullied at school, including 14.4 percent who experienced cyberbullying.

Among other responses to the new questions:

• Fifteen percent of students said they had skipped breakfast each morning of the prior week.

• A third of the students said their parents don’t have rules for their children’s Internet use.

• Forty-four percent of students said neither their parents nor other adults in their families had talked to them about what they expect them to do or not do when it comes to sex.

Among the survey’s other findings included increases in risky behaviors, based on responses to questions that have been asked in previous surveys, including:

• The percentage of middle schoolers who said in the prior month they had ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking — 31.1 percent, up from 28.5 percent in 2007.

• The percentage of middle schoolers who said they had ever used marijuana was up slightly, as was the percentage of students who said they had used over-the-counter medicines to get high.

Pike, who was a classroom teacher for 17 years before moving into administration seven years ago, said given the challenges facing Clark County’s adolescents, she was expecting the survey to show that some teens are indeed struggling.

Cyberbullying is on the rise nationally among adolescents, and in several well-publicized cases has been blamed for the suicides of young victims. The Nevada Legislature mandated last year that all health teachers receive professional development to help them address the issue with students. That was one of the topics covered in Friday’s staff training day for Clark County teachers, along with issues related to violence and suicide.

The CDC grant that paid for the expanded middle school survey was only for one year, which means the district probably won’t be able to follow up the baseline numbers in 2011. But Pike said her office is looking for other ways of asking students about the new issues.

Middle school can be a tough transition, said Charles Webb, a counselor at West Prep, the district’s alternative K-12 campus.

“Kids are coming out of the fun environment of elementary and trying to find their identity,” Webb said. “They think, ‘If I can bully someone to show how tough I am, people will respect me more.’ ”

On the district’s high school survey, nearly 12 percent of students said they had been slapped, hit or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the prior year, up from almost 9 percent in 2007 (the rate was 10 percent nationally). The increase is alarming, but not surprising, Webb said.

“We talk to our students about what is acceptable behavior,” Webb said. “But unfortunately many of them pick it up from what they see at home.”

There’s only so much of the burden that can be placed on schools to address the underlying issues that lead adolescents to engage in self-destructive behavior, said Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, past president of the Nevada PTA.

“Raising children isn’t easy even when the economy is great and everyone’s happy,” said Denis, who has five children ages 7 to 24. “Right now, I think a lot of people are so anxious they’re having a tough time doing their jobs as parents.”

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