More Hesperia Unified School District students are using alcohol and marijuana than did three years ago, according to a new study. Meanwhile, tobacco use remains rare.


The results come from the spring 2008 California Healthy Kids Survey results, conducted by the HUSD. The anonymous, voluntary survey was given to 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th graders, evenly split between boys and girls.


In the last 30 days before the survey was given, 23 percent of 7th graders said they had used alcohol, up from 16 percent of 7th graders in 2005. Thirty-four percent of 9th graders said they had, up from 29 percent in 2005, and 40 percent of 11th graders said they had, up from 38 percent in 2005.


Fifth graders were asked not asked about recent use, 33 percent of them said they had ever used alcohol, up from 28 percent in 2005. In comparison, 38 percent of 7th graders, 58 percent of 9th graders and 69 percent of 11th graders said they had ever tried alcohol.


"One of the big red flags was a 7 percent jump in the [past] 30 days of 7th grade alcohol use," said HUSD curriculum/technology coordinator Russ Munyan, who oversaw the survey. "We think it's just a cultural shift for our 7th graders: Alcohol is starting to make its inroads with students, lower and lower."


The district will need to add more discussion of the dangers of alcohol to the 7th grade science and health curriculum, he said, "so they at least hear from an adult these are the bad things that happen."


Marijuana use is lower than the rate of reported alcohol use, according to the students who participated in the poll, but still up over 2005 levels: Nine percent of 7th graders said they had used marijuana in the last 30 days (up from 8 percent in 2005), as had 19 percent of 9th graders (up from 10 percent) and 21 percent of 11th graders (up from 12 percent).


Two percent of 5th graders said they had ever tried marijuana, as did 15 percent of 7th graders, 31 percent of 9th graders and 41 percent of 11th graders.


But while they might be trying, or using, marijuana, Hesperia students are much less interested in tobacco. Only 1 percent of 7th graders said they had used it in the last 30 days, along with 3 percent of 9th graders and 2 percent of 11th graders, each up a percentage point or two over 2005 numbers.


Five percent of 5th graders said they had tried tobacco at some point, along with 10 percent of 7th graders, 25 percent of 9th graders, 33 percent of 11th graders. In other words, except for fifth graders, Hesperia students were more likely to have at least tried marijuana than to have tried tobacco.


The answer to the growth in these numbers, especially among younger students, might come from a question asked to the 5th graders: Thirty-six percent of students are now at home without supervision at least some of the time, compared to 32 percent in 2005.


"The figures don't surprise me," said Hesperia Unified School District police chief Mike Graham. "I've seen kindergarteners playing [the mature-rated videogame] Grand Theft Auto. ... The TV has become the babysitter. You've got parents who wouldn't allow a stranger in the house, because they don't know them, but they let the kids watch anything, and don't monitor them."


There are a few caveats regarding the survey results. The survey was voluntary, with only 57 percent of the district's 5th graders participating, 80 percent of the 7th graders, 74 percent of the 9th graders and 55 percent of the 11th graders. The 2005 surveys were conducted in the fall, while the 2008 surveys were conducted in the spring, and the changes in socialization that occur over the course of a school year could skew some results.


"There's a big difference in fifth graders between the beginning and the end," Munyan said. "Toward the end of the year, they've seen a lot more, been exposed to a lot more."


The next round of the study will be run this fall, in keeping with when the survey was conducted in 2003 and 2005.


"I think when we administer these survey results in the fall, we'll see they really aren't that far off from where they were in 2005," Munyan said, "Which is a good thing, a great thing."


As for what to do about the results, the school district's police chief has an idea.


"I find that the kids that get involved in [drugs and alcohol] are the same ones where the parents aren't involved in their lives," said Graham.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.