Pongratz’ Research Shows Substance Abuse Decline

Morrie Pongratz

By CHARMIAN SCHALLER
Los Alamos Kiwanis Club

There is a common belief in Los Alamos County that substance abuse among students at Los Alamos High School (LAHS) is serious and increasing–but Morrie Pongratz says his research shows that substance abuse is actually going down.

Pongratz spoke at Kiwanis recently, using a PowerPoint presentation to show figures and graphs supporting his belief.

The New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (YRRS) has been administered at LAHS every year since 1998. It is produced by the New Mexico Department of Health, the New Mexico Public Education Department, and the University of New Mexico Prevention Research Center. It receives support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pongratz, a youth liaison for Kiwanis, has done his own analysis of the YRRS figures each year.

The most recent YRRS survey for which Los Alamos figures and analysis are now available was administered in 2013. A total of 318 LAHS students took the survey–172 girls and 146 boys. The response rate for LAHS was 92%.  (The larger the number of students surveyed and the higher the response rate, the stronger the conclusions reached.) Pongratz said, “We should really feel good (about the results). The numbers are going down–both statewide and in Los Alamos.” He said the survey shows that:

  • Alcohol use “is going down precipitously” in Los Alamos. (The 2013 YRRS showed that 22.7 percent of the students responding said they were currently drinking–compared to 28.9 percent statewide.)
  • Marijuana use was down in Los Alamos in 2013. (YRRS figures showed that 20.6 percent of the students responding said they were currently using marijuana. Survey results indicated that marijuana was the only drug used by more than 7 percent of LAHS students. The next highest percentage was 6.5 percent who said they used painkillers to get high. Pongratz said that in past years, the YRRS has indicated that marijuana use was running  25 percent to 30 percent at LAHS.) 
  • Hard drugs? Pongratz said survey results over the last several years showed that the use of cocaine by LAHS students peaked in 2010 at just a little below 10 percent, and heroin use was even less. Both are down since then. (The 2013 results showed that 4.9 percent of survey respondents at LAHS said they were using cocaine, and 3.1 percent said they were using heroin. For comparison, 27.8 percent of respondents statewide said they were using marijuana; 8.5 percent said they were using painkillers; 5.3 percent said they were using cocaine; and 2.9 percent said they were using heroin.)

Pongratz said he noted that a recent speaker at Kiwanis (Jen Bartram, coordinator of the Teen Court), Police Chief Dino Sgambellone, and a story in the Los Alamos Monitor (reporting on a drug-awareness community meeting moderated by the police chief) all said that “drug use is rampant” in Los Alamos. However, he said, that is “not what I’m seeing at all.” He said the YRRS is “the best survey I’ve ever seen,” and, he added, “The survey is valid.” He invited his listeners to “check out the vast amount of (YRRS) information available at www.youthrisk.org.”

How can one check validity? Pongratz noted the use of different questions, scattered throughout the survey, that ask, basically, the same question. One can check for consistency in the answers to see whether students are answering randomly or just making up responses for whatever reason. There are also mathematical ways to measure statistical validity. 

In information made available during his presentation, Pongratz concluded, “We must be doing something right–prevention, for example … It is probable that we’re providing treatment and counseling services to those most in need … Despite good trends, we still have many ‘hurting’ adolescents who need help; 20 percent smoking marijuana represents more than 200 adolescents!” He said, “About 10 percent of the students are having trouble,” and that fact is “not to be ignored … but things are getting better; they really are.”

Several Kiwanis members asked questions or made comments after Pongratz finished his presentation.

In response to a question about how the survey is administered, Pongratz said it is always done in English classes, and it is always done in the same way. Cheryl Pongratz, a longtime Los Alamos educator, confirmed that teachers are always present to observe as the students take the survey, but the teachers are told not to intervene in any way that might affect the answers.

Robert Cunningham noted that the survey is conducted in school, and, therefore, its results do not include responses from dropouts and home-schooled young people. Pongratz said, however, that the survey is consistent from year to year. Those students are always left out.

Linda Daly, a Kiwanis member who heads the YMCA, said that the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board will soon be doing the second in a series of peer-to-peer surveys asking young people about drug use. In response to questions, she said that this year, the peer-to-peer effort will try to explore “positive deviance,” seeking answers to such questions as why some students don’t use drugs, and why some programs or approaches are more effective in helping students stop using drugs.

Commenting on Pongratz’ presentation, Kiwanis President Steve Boerigter observed that sometimes, “sounding the good news helps.”

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