As a California Distinguished School, Carmel High often prides itself on achieving above the state average in areas like test scores, college admissions or graduation rates. But there is one way CHS ranks above the state average that is less than celebrated: almost half of Carmel High’s juniors report having been very drunk from alcohol during their lifetimes.In the report submitted earlier this year to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, through which CHS sought renewed accreditation as a school, the incidence of significant alcohol use among students was reported as higher than the state average, though declining in recent years.
The WASC report stated that “alcohol use among Carmel students has declined and is more aligned with state averages than it had been in the past.”
It goes on to explain that in 2011-2012, 15 students (1.9 percent of all students) were suspended for alcohol-related offenses. This data, coupled with the surveying done of CarmelHigh School students in preparation for the WASC report, puts alcohol use by students above the state average.
Surveying of CHS students reported that in the 2012-2013 school year, 48 percent of juniors reported being “very drunk or sick from alcohol” at least once in their lives, compared to 39 percent of juniors in California as a whole.
Since 2010-2011, however, the same statistic among freshmen students at CarmelHigh School dropped sharply, from equaling the state average at 25 percent to the current figure of 17 percent.
Such progress is indicative of the success of CHS’ alcohol education and information program, according to Heath Rocha, director of student services at CUSD.
“The addition of AlcoholEdu [for freshmen] and LifeSkills Training [in middle school] has dramatically reduced binge drinking and the desire to binge drink in ninth grade,” Rocha says. “We have not seen this at CUSD for eight years.”
AlcoholEdu was not part of the curriculum for 2013 juniors in their freshman year, nor were they exposed to the LifeSkills program in middle school.
A ninth-grade program Rocha describes as “evidence based,” AlcoholEdu is rooted in the philosophy of preventing abuse of alcohol by minors for as long as possible.
“Research tells us that if you prolong the age of onset for alcohol abuse, the less likely students will abuse substances when they get older,” Rocha says. “Thus, I am very optimistic that our prescriptive and targeted evidence based interventions are yielding positive results.”
“Binge drinking” is technically described as five or more drinks within the space of a few hours.
The survey which provided data referenced in the WASC report found that among CHS juniors, 29 percent of students binge drank in the last thirty days at the time of the survey. This is consistent with the survey’s findings that CHS juniors binge drink more often than the state average of 22 percent.
As with Rocha’s description of alcohol use in general by younger CHS students, the reported incidence of binge drinking in the last thirty days among freshmen has dropped since 2010-2011 to just 6 percent—far lower than the state freshman state average of 14 percent. Rocha points to this decline across multiple categories of alcohol abuse as signs of significant progress.
Rocha says that continuing alcohol education in high school is “keeping kids from very risky and potentially fatal behavior.”
CUSD nurse Susan Pierszalowski agrees with this portrayal of student drinking. She describes alcohol use as harmful to students’ ability to function at school.
“Studies have found in teens that drink that the part of the brain which affects learning, thinking and memory is abnormal compared to the brains of teens that don’t binge drink,” Pierszalowski says.
Not all CHS students who engage in binge drinking agree with these assessments of their behavior, however. One male senior, speaking anonymously to avoid disciplinary action, describes occasional drinking as “helpful.”
“Drinking lowers your barriers,” he says. “It helps you be social, make friends. That’s part of what high school is supposed to be about, right?” This student spoke to having been “very drunk” twice in the last thirty days.
One female junior, also speaking anonymously, agrees: “When you drink, you’re doing it to have fun. Doing anything else, you’re really no more likely to do something stupid. If you just want to unwind, you do it around other people.”
She says she feels “safe” when consuming alcohol with other peer students and speaks to having binged three times in the last thirty days.
Of particular concern for Rocha and other administration officials, however, is not solely the incidence of drinking among CHS students, it is also the volume of alcohol consumed when it occurs.
When asked how they “liked to drink,” 46 percent of juniors responded that they wanted to drink “enough to feel it a lot.” That figure contrasts sharply with the state average, wherein only 30 percent of juniors seek to drink that volume of alcohol.
Again, however, Rocha points to the sharp decline in the amount of alcohol younger students who want to drink as a mark of growing success. In 2010-2011, the rate among freshmen was 19 percent—equal to the statewide average. This year, the same value shrank to 11 percent.
Still, one male sophomore student, speaking anonymously, disagrees with the CHS policy of intensive and recurrent alcohol education.
“It’s overkill,” he says. “One way or the other, [the CHS administration] isn’t causing kids to be a bunch of drunks.”