Aspen eighth graders report lower levels of marijuana use than their counterparts nationwide. By the time they reach 12th grade, however, Aspen students use marijuana at higher-than-normal rates. The national averages come from Monitoring The Future (MTF), a University of Michigan study that tracks teen behaviors and attitudes nationwide. Credit: Courtesy Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention

ASPEN — There is a drug and alcohol problem among Aspen youth, but it’s not necessarily the problem you’ve heard children describe.

While there are some worrisome substance-abuse trends among a minority of Aspen High School students — and community concern has ramped up with the controversial Feb. 6 arrest of a student on suspicion of marijuana possession just off campus — there are also broad misconceptions about drug and alcohol use that may contribute to the problem.

Consider two key conclusions from the Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey in March, which is sponsored by the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention and administered by FCD Educational Services, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

First, according to the survey, Aspen eighth-graders are below nationwide norms for alcohol and marijuana use, while Aspen 12th-graders are above national norms. In other words, Aspen students go from relative innocence in eighth grade to higher-than-normal use by the time they finish high school.

Second, perceptions of alcohol and marijuana use at Aspen High are much greater than the reality. For example, 30 percent of 10th-graders report using marijuana one to two times per year or more, but 96 percent of 10th graders believe their classmates use marijuana one to two times per year or more.

Similarly, underclassmen think seniors drink much more than seniors actually do. For example, 63.5 percent of freshmen believe seniors drink at least once per week. Seventy-four percent of sophomores think seniors drink once per week or more. The reality? Just 38.1 percent of seniors drink at least once per week, and 20 percent of seniors have never had a drink.

Paul Hufnagle, school resource officer at Aspen High School, says parents should communicate with each other and with their kids in order to reduce substance abuse among teens. Credit: Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Doubting the data

Some students and parents have questioned the accuracy of the survey data, saying the problem is much worse than the numbers show. Michael Connolly of the Valley Partnership believes strongly in the results because students know their anonymity is protected. If they were lying in order to protect themselves, he asks, then why would the survey show the steadily rising rates of drinking and smoking from eighth to 12th grades? It is true that 23 students provided bogus answers or few answers at all, and those surveys were discarded.

“These kids are helping us by giving us good data,” Connolly said. “The very last thing I want to do is compromise that trust.”

The numbers reveal a major gap between perception and reality in the school community, Connolly said. And the perception of high alcohol and drug use actually functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If kids think everyone is doing it, then they’re more likely to do it,” he said. “If we can get the perception closer to reality, then use will go down, too.”

Overall, 79 percent of all Aspen students either do not drink at all or typically drink once per month or less. This average combines lower percentages in the upper grades and higher percentages in the lower grades.

To varying degrees, younger students overestimate how much Aspen High seniors drink. Students in grades 9-11 believe most seniors drink once or twice per week, but 61.8 percent of seniors report drinking less than that, or not at all. Credit: Courtesy Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention

When perception becomes reality

Connolly admits these numbers are still unacceptably high and that there is a substance-abuse problem among Aspen High students. However, if students realize that most of their peers do not smoke or drink, then he thinks it’ll be much easier for students to say, “No, thanks.”

Aspen High School Principal Kim Martin is broadcasting the message that yes, there is substance use, but it involves a minority of students.

“While students engaged in risky, irresponsible behavior pose a threat to themselves and the school community, there are far more students at Aspen making healthy decisions,” Martin wrote in a December letter to parents. “These students can be a powerful force for maintaining and strengthening the health of the school.”

Just as they do with marijuana, Aspen students steadily increase their alcohol use as they go from 8th to 12th grade. In 8th, they are well below the average reported in the University of Michigan\’s Monitoring the Future study, but in 12th grade they are well above average. Credit: Courtesy Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention
Just as they do with marijuana, Aspen students steadily increase their alcohol use as they go from 8th to 12th grade. In 8th, they are well below the average reported in the University of Michigan\’s Monitoring the Future study, but in 12th grade they are well above average. Credit: Courtesy Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention

Why the increase?

Substance use increases with age in virtually every high school across the nation, but Aspen students seem to hit the gas pedal especially hard. Nobody knows exactly why. Martin, who came to Aspen from Cleveland, said many Aspen teens carry a lot of stress brought on by academic, athletic and extracurricular obligations, along with the pressure of college admissions, and they also have uncommon levels of freedom.

“Some of these 16-year-olds have their own cars, their own credit cards. They’re going on vacation by themselves,” Martin said. “Kids here are very, very grown.”

Others, including School Resource Officer Paul Hufnagle, of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, say Aspen teens get a lot of mixed messages about alcohol and drugs. Aspen prides itself on health and wellness, but it’s also a resort town renowned for its nightlife. Layered on top of those contradictions is the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, which some say has led many teens to assume that smoking pot or consuming marijuana edibles is normal, healthy behavior. In fact, research shows that marijuana, especially today’s stronger strains, has a variety of negative effects on the developing brain.

“If you voted for Amendment 64, then tell your kids why,” Hufnagle said. “A lot of people voted for it, but not because they want to smoke in downtown Aspen. They voted for it because of the school taxes and the benefits.”

Principal Kim Martin says the untold story at Aspen High is the number of students making good choices about alcohol and drugs. Credit: Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Parental involvement

To spread the word about drug- and alcohol-free culture at Aspen High, Connolly is putting together an “Admirals Club” of involved parents to ramp up communication among families and change the culture surrounding drugs and alcohol.

Connolly and parent Jillian Livingston have created a new page on Facebook to promote their efforts and publicize their upcoming meetings. The site features articles and videos on substance abuse, the developing teenage brain and more.

“The mission of the club is to bring together families, schools and our community as a unified whole to change the climate to promote a healthier environment for our kids,” Livingston wrote in a recent letter.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on schools coverage. The Times published this story on Feb. 16, 2015.