Los Alamos Public Schools Healthy Schools Initiative director Kristine Coblentz addresses Los Alamos County Council during a Dec. 4 panel discussion on Promoting a Healthy Community.
Note: A landmark panel discussion was held at the Dec. 4 Los Alamos County Council meeting on Promoting a Healthy Community which resulted in a very extensive and comprehensive discussion of issues of concern in the community particularly for youth and the efforts being made to address those issues as well as available resources. The Los Alamos Reporter is publishing a series of stories based on the meeting. This is story is the first of four in the series.
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Dec. 4 meeting of the Los Alamos County Council included a lengthy panel discussion on Promoting a Healthy Community. Presented by Councilor Morrie Pongratz, the discussion included reviews of the Los Alamos Public Schools Healthy Schools Initiative and prevention program strategies; results of the 2017 Youth Risk and Resilience Survey (YRRS); Los Alamos County Social Services Division efforts; Los Alamos Police Department Concerns; Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB) programs; and impressions from the Los Alamos Teen Center vantage point.
Pongratz said what stated 20 years ago as Youth Working For Youth has become the JJAB, the Teen Center, the Social Services Division and Los Alamos Public Schools Healthy Schools Initiative but that that there is still a ways to go. He reviewed some of the trends of the YRRS which had struck him such as the decline in the number of students who say they drink alcohol from 50 percent to now less than 25 percent. He expressed concern that more than 15 percent of the students surveyed said they rode with a drinking driver.
Pongratz noted the trend in cigarette smoking is that it has been going down but that one of the concerns is that there may be a switch from smoking cigarettes to vaping.
“The survey shows an upward trend in suicide ideation. So what we have here is the percent of students who have expressed persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that’s called suicide ideation. Over 30 percent of the students – this is one that really scares me – over 12 percent of these female students have attempted suicide and I think it was something like 7 percent were injured in this suicide attempt,” he said.
Social Services Division Manager Donna Casados said her division oversees contracts with various organizations in Los Alamos County such as Family Strengths Network, JJAB, Los Alamos Family Council, the Youth Activity Center, YMCA, Los Alamos Retirees, DWI Program and Los Alamos Community Health Council. She also oversees grants such as the DWI grant and the Child Youth and Family Division grant for JJAB. The division accomplishes all this with two fulltime and one .75 time employee.
Casados said the focus of the Division is to try and collaborate with these organizations within the County to make sure everybody is going in the same direction. She said the Division is trying to see what is working in Los Alamos County, what programs are available and to understand how everything fits together and make sure that services are not being duplicated.
“We are working with what we have right now and making sure that it’s operating efficiently before we can actually get into anything else,” she said.
Kristine Coblentz, director of the Los Alamos Public Schools Healthy Schools Initiative for the past two years presented information from and response to the 2017 YRRS which she said is implemented every year for 6th through 12th grade. The last time it was implemented was in the fall of 2017 and it was a random sampling of the student population. She said Los Alamos Middle School date is expected to be released Dec. 14. She said one thing that’s unique about the YRRS in New Mexico is that it doesn’t measure only risk behavior but also resiliency factors.
“We’re happy about that because we now do have a resiliency-based prevention program and it’s important for us to be able to review those factors,” she said adding that the survey is snapchat in time taken on one day and the students report on their behavior in the last 30 days.
Coblentz said a couple of high risk factors that stand out right away are incidents of bullying, sexual dating violence, non-suicidal self-injury or what we call self-harming behavior, the consideration of suicide or plan of suicide, and e-cig use which she believes is underreported in the report.
“We had not seen the product Juul arrive in our community when this survey was taken, That hit shortly afterwards. It’s a very small device that can mask as a USB drive and is very hard to detect its daily use. I believe that this may be much higher and from student anecdotal reports it is much higher,” she said.
Coblentz discussed the Risk and Resiliency Assessment Program for Students (RAPS) which is underway in Los Alamos and only a handful of other places in the state. It was created by the University of New Mexico’s prevention research center and is an innovative leadership development program designed to have students look at their own public health data, she said.
“I’m excited to see so many adults in the audience and in the community interested in the YRRS data. I think this is the most interest I’ve seen in the YRRS data. I’ve been studying it for years as a basis for writing grants primarily and developing prevention programs. We now have students that are able to look at the data, bring their real life experience to the data, do a root cause analysis and help inform us as to why we think these behaviors might happen and what are possible solutions that could work as well as action items that could be taken to shift these behaviors,” Coblentz said.
She said the RAPS group just had a retreat with 14 students from Los Alamos and Rio Arriba Counties where they spent a whole day and came up with their three top strengths on a voting by consensus basis as well as five strong concerns they have.
- 83% of LAHS students say a teacher believes that they will be a success
- 82% of LAHS students say a parent believes that they will be a success
- Only 1.2% of LAHS students have ever used injection drugs
- 44% of LAHS students did not use a condom the last time they had sex, increase from 20% in 2005
- 32% of LAHS students felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in the past year
- 60% of LAHS Seniors texted or emailed while driving
- 24.5% of LAHS students hurt themselves on purpose without the intent to die
- Only 35% of LAHS students used effective birth control (Shot/Patch/IUD)
“A strength they noted in their community is that parents and teachers in general believe that they will be a success. This is one of the highest predictors of success, that a student an adult in their life that cares for them and believes in them. Another strength they identified is that in the midst of an opioid crisis in our state that very low percentages of kids in our high school have ever used injection drugs. We do want to note that that 1.2 percent represents a handful of students so we would like that to be zero,” she said.
Coblentz said concerns identified from the survey included that is seemed that condom use had gone down drastically since 2005 and the students were questioning why at that time were 80 percent of students using condoms and now only 66 percent. She said the students have some ideas about why that might be true – “some access issues in particular”.
“Second one is that they concerned that a third of their peers felt sad or hopeless and that this is a sustained feeling for them. One action item they are really excited about being able to tackle is that 60 percent of LAHS seniors reported that they had texted or emailed while driving which we know is a strong public hazard. They have creative ideas of how to address that problem. Next, that a quarter of students have engaged in self-harming behavior without the intent to die but we know that students that do self-harm are at higher risk for suicide even if they may not be suicidal at that time. Finally, the students were concerned that only 25 percent of high school students are using effective birth control and that is defined the shot, the patch or the IUD,” she said.
Coblentz said the students will be moving on perhaps to host a community dialog event where they would meet with community leaders, visionaries and potential funders to come up with specific action items so that they can address the concerns that they prioritized in their population. She said it is a very powerful experience for them to go through “this very research-based process of looking at public health data”. She commended the school board for their planning, visioning, support and establishing a Healthy Schools Initiative as well as recognizing the need and coming up with the funding for the program.
She said two strategies she feels are building resilience and increasing social and emotional intelligence.
“Resiliency is not just the ability to bounce back from challenging events but to bounce forward, to really learn from experience and be able to cope as we face the hardships of the world. Social and emotional learning is our ability to manage ourselves, to regulate ourselves, to understand the perspective of other people, to have that social awareness, the ability to build relationships and be able to make responsible decisions for ourselves,” she said. “So we are weaving that into all of our work with young people and with staff as well so that we can model all those behaviors. We use a lot of tools to do this. Some of them are mindfulness, how to use a toolbox, actually build these skills. We’re learning more about the effect of trauma on people in schools and how that affects behavior. We’re doing training in bystander intervention, helping people to step up when they see harm or injustice in our community, how to step up and protect each other and then how to really support our staff so that they have strong well-being as well.”
She said the mission is to build protective factors so these connections to adults, safe environments and coping skills reduce potential risk behaviors.
“We’re approaching that with three key strategies: The first is to expand our prevention program to K-12. It used to be highly-focused in the high school which is more of a reaction program than a prevention program. We are expanding the K-6 piece and then we’re looking also at how to use evidence-based strategies in middle and high school to make sure we are doing what’s called upstream prevention – building protective factors and reducing harm much earlier,” Coblentz said.
The second strategy it to provide opportunities for our staff so that we are all “preventionists”, so that we all play a part in protecting children, she said. The final strategy she said is developing a broad based communication and education program for the community.
“I think we do a lot of great things in this community. I want to increase our ability to leverage our resources to align our efforts, so that we’re all working from a resiliency-based and evidence-based model and to really make the most of your investment, our investment, the greatest of which is time, and really be present and make a difference for our youth. We do have a lot to celebrate but we do have the challenge before us. The issues we see are reflected nationally so these are not necessarily unique to our community. Many of the trends are trending similarly. We have a whole cultural wave we work with or against and we have a lot of resources in this community and I’m thankful to my colleagues that are here tonight because I think we’re at a level of collaboration and intention that we’ve never seen before,” Coblentz concluded.