New data released last week showed the share of Maine high school students using e-cigarettes had nearly doubled in the past two years, prompting Gov. Janet Mills to announce a new statewide anti-vaping campaign.
But the survey that pointed to the sharp increase in teen vaping lacked data from students in Maine’s third largest school district because the Bangor School Department has declined to participate in the statewide health survey that asks students about their drug and tobacco use, school safety and students’ mental health.
Bangor High School is one of 25 high schools in Maine, and by far the largest, whose students don’t participate.
As a result, it’s difficult to know whether Bangor students fall in line with statewide trends from the Maine Integrated Youth Healthy Survey or buck them, such as whether Bangor students are more or less likely to have brought a weapon to school and whether they’re more or less likely to have felt sad or hopeless in the past year. The school department also lacks another source of data on the health of its students that it could use to inform new policies or address a pressing health need.
“We certainly feel that that information is really very beneficial for the state but also for the local communities,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education, which administers the survey with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Those communities can look really specifically at both the successes and the areas of need and can create the local awareness campaign and their local policy response if it is warranted.”
In the past year, Bangor schools went through a lockdown because of a student’s threat of violence, a high school student was arrested after allegedly bringing a stolen handgun to school and a high school student died by suicide. Among other questions, the anonymous survey asks students whether they’ve brought a weapon onto school property, whether they have felt unsafe at school, whether they’ve recently felt sad or hopeless and whether they’ve contemplated suicide. Multiple years of results would show whether students’ answers to those questions have changed over time.
Many school districts across the state share local results with their school boards or hold community forums to discuss the survey results, Deveaux said. The state releases state- and county-level results.
“Truly it needs to be your community, your families, your community agencies and your school that are working together to ensure the health, safety and well-being of children,” Deveaux said.
All schools are invited to participate in the biennial survey. Fifth and sixth graders are randomly sampled, and all other middle- and high-school students have the chance to participate, according to the Department of Education.
Bangor High School is the only high school in Greater Bangor whose students don’t participate. Students from the state’s two largest school districts, Portland and Lewiston, participate in the survey, according to the Department of Education.
Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said the school department “does not use a survey to monitor student health and well-being.”
The school system has a number of other information sources to monitor students’ health and well-being, Webb said in an email, including medical records, “individual education plans, personal learning plans, weekly Student Assistance Teams, weekly grade level and department meetings, monthly Response to Intervention screenings, annual health screenings, and guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, mental health counselors, faculty, etc. reports.”
The school department a year ago also won a federal “Stop the Violence” grant to pursue anti-school violence initiatives, Webb said.
Gregg Palmer, the superintendent of schools in Brewer who previously led high schools in Portland, Falmouth and Searsport, said his schools always participated in the survey and found it useful.
“We learn what percentage of kids feel safe in your school, or are experimenting with drugs,” he said. “If I see a high or low percentage of students that feel safe at school, that could drive programming.”