Idaho

Budget cuts eliminate survey used for drug prevention programs

BOISE – Idaho has made much of a startling statistic – that teen meth use in the state dropped 52 percent from 2007 to 2009. It’s the largest percentage drop of any state and coincided with the Idaho Meth Project ramping up its graphic anti-meth TV ads and billboards.

But that 52 percent figure was boosted by a small increase from 2005 to 2007; 11 states actually saw greater declines from 2005 to 2009, according to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

A separate, similar survey of teen meth use in Idaho – with a much larger sample size – shows smaller, steadier drops, similar to drops seen for the past decade nationwide.

That survey, the Idaho School Climate Survey, has been conducted every other year since 1996. It would have been administered to 15,000-plus Idaho teens again next month – except that state budget cuts have eliminated funding that covered its $57,000 cost.

School districts, state agencies and nonprofits across the state use the school climate survey data to win grants for various prevention programs.

“It’s a huge blow,” said Matt McCarter, safe and drug-free schools coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education. “We’ll lose the trend data. … It’s going to be a huge impact, because we’ll have less data to be able to inform programs, policy and funding.”

The survey touted by the Idaho Meth Project is funded through the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will continue, but it has a much smaller sample size in Idaho – about 2,100 kids – and won’t be taken again until spring 2011.

Idaho this year shifted its dedicated funding for safe and drug-free schools – $7 million last year – to discretionary funds because of the state’s budget crunch. That means some districts may continue using that money for safety and prevention programs, and others may use it for more pressing needs. An array of other programs got the same treatment, from gifted-and-talented education to textbook purchases to the state math initiative.

The prevention programs, which covered everything from alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse prevention to anti-bullying, anti-gang and school safety programs, were funded through a distribution formula that handed out most of the $7 million to every school district in the state.

McCarter said he’s just now hearing how the various districts are handling the change. “It appears that the bigger districts are able to maintain (prevention programs) – many boards of trustees and superintendents and administrators have seen great value in what the program’s done in terms of reducing barriers to learning. And others see more immediate needs other places.”

Previously, every school district had an individual assigned to coordinate prevention programs. Some of those people have been moved to part-time status and others say they have been reassigned to other duties, McCarter said.

His own job is partly funded by a federal grant for after-school programs; his two staffers at the state department have been mostly reassigned, with only a small percentage of their time now available for prevention programs.

The shift of school funding out of specific line items and into the discretionary category was part of state lawmakers’ strategy this year to help schools cope with an unprecedented $128.5 million cut in state funding that’s just hitting now, as children return to school.

“I’d love to see the program fully funded, but I don’t know how you do that when you’re taking money out of every other pot to try to make do with what you’ve got,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Unlike the safe and drug-free schools program, state funding this year for the Idaho Meth Project – $500,000 toward the campaign to target first-time teen meth use, including through television commercials and billboards – survived the cuts. That’s because the funding came from Idaho’s Millenium Fund, which distributes proceeds from a tobacco settlement to prevention efforts, not from the school budget.

McCarter said he didn’t apply for Millenium Fund money because his program had a dedicated funding source from state cigarette taxes and lottery funds, but he’s considering applying for next year. A few districts still want to conduct the survey this fall and McCarter is helping them coordinate it, but it’s too late now to do a statewide survey.

The survey has highlighted everything from a decline in teen smoking to students reporting that school was their top source of information about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

McCarter also collects incident reports from school districts on school policy violations, on everything from drugs to bullying to weapons on campus, and matches them against the survey results to judge accuracy. Alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use are by far the most common violations and also garner the biggest numbers in the survey. Schools have reported hardly any meth-related incidents, “maybe one or two in a whole year throughout the state.”

McCarter said the state’s data shows that a “360-degree approach” to teen risk-taking behaviors works best, with everything from teaching refusal skills to providing caring adults and positive, healthy activities. “If we tell a kid to say ‘no’ to one thing, we have to offer something just as compelling for them to say ‘yes’ to,” he said. “We really try to look at it in terms of the total picture.”

He added that the loss of this year’s statewide survey will have big implications, “because absent the data, we can’t intelligently appropriate finite resources.”



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