By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, Utah
PARK CITY — Three out of four kids at Park City High School don’t smoke pot, says the cheery voice of a young woman on KPCW, the local radio station. “We’re having fun without alcohol or drugs.”
Cool. So what about the remaining 25 percent?
In some Utah communities that message — confirming substance abuse among teens — might be controversial. But Park City High School, in conjunction with Valley Mental Health, is taking a new tack on alcohol and drug prevention, says Merilee Buchanan, assistant program manager.
“We’re not saying there isn’t a problem,” Buchanan says. “But by focusing on the behavior we want, we’re working with adolescent development, not against it.”
The essence of the “social norms approach,” she explains, is to demonstrate to teens that the majority of their peers, in fact, are not substance abusers. That knowledge arms youth with information that could stop them from giving in to peer pressure to smoke dope or drink alcohol.
“If a ninth-grade kid believes that 90 percent of the school smokes pot, he’s going to feel peer pressure to join them,” Buchanan says. “But if he thinks only 25 percent do it, then his behavior will follow the trend.”
At least that’s the theory. And it smacks head-on into more traditional approaches, like DARE, that focus on only the negative aspects of substance abuse.
But a growing body of evidence shows that the strategy employed by programs like DARE doesn’t work, said Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith College in New York.
“Health terrorism — trying to scare health into teens by telling them all the bad things that will happen to them — doesn’t change high-risk behavior,” says Perkins, a pioneer in the area and editor of the text The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College-Age Substance Abuse.
Park City has long had a reputation as a party town. Drug and alcohol abuse here may be higher than it is in other Utah communities — at least that’s the perception. Earlier this year, the Park City Police Department teamed with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies to search the high school campus with drug-sniffing dogs.
Few illicit substances were found. It’s what Perkins calls the “misperception of the norm” phenomenon.
“We find that in every student population,” he explains. “We discovered a pattern where students grossly misperceive the peer norm. They overestimate two to three fold.”
To combat prevailing attitudes, Park City High, in conjunction with Valley Mental Health and a $150,000 state grant, surveyed 445 of about 1,200 Park City High students. The survey was conducted with permission of parents although students remained anonymous. It revealed that two out of three students did not drink alcohol, that three out of four did not smoke pot, and that nine out of 10 did not use other illicit substances.
The program then outlined a public relations campaign through posters, radio, student and community newspapers and television so that teens and their parents could become aware of the findings, Buchanan said. “So when kids say, ‘Hey, everybody at the party was drinking,’ the parents will say, ‘We don’t think so.’ “
Dave Adamson, the superintendent of the Park City School District, says he likes the new program because it gives information to the entire town. “The community perception is that we have a bigger problem than we actually have.”
Drug and alcohol abuse among teens is an issue in every high school, Adamson said. “At that age, to have an adult tell you it’s a bad thing doesn’t carry the same weight as it does when peers do.”
But the new paradigm does raise red flags because it concedes that youth are using drugs and alcohol, said Perkins. “Some people are fearful because we’re saying that 25 percent do. That’s true. But [without the information] students estimate that 75 percent do. With continued information based on credible data, students will scale back exaggerated misperceptions.”