According to a new national survey of high schools, Hispanic students use drugs and attempt suicide at higher rates than black or white peers. Moreover, Hispanic students are more likely to ride with a driver who had been drinking alcohol or to use cocaine, heroin or ecstacy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found. They most often drank alcohol on school grounds, were offered or sold illegal drugs and occasionally skipped school because they feared for their safety.
Hispanics are one of the fastest growing segments of Utah's population. State education, human services and law enforcement officials need to study these trends and plan accordingly as the state's Hispanic population grows. With education, early intervention and parental involvement, Hispanic youths need not fall prey to these risk factors.
But it will take concerted and ongoing effort. Howell Wechsler, director of adolescent and school health for the CDC, laments that Hispanic youths nationwide have not improved in certain risk areas at the same rate as blacks and whites.
One factor may be educational. Earlier research found that Hispanics and blacks more commonly attend highly segregated schools. That has not been an issue in predominately Caucasian Utah, but school planners must consider that factor as they decide where to build schools or shift school boundaries.
While government agencies can act on some of these issues through policy and practice, parents and families play a vital role in raising healthy and emotionally secure children. While some youths may experiment with drugs and alcohol, they may also use these substances to self-medicate for mental illness or trauma related to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
In many respects, Utah is ahead of the game in helping at-risk youths develop into healthy, productive adults. A number of nonprofit and government agencies in Salt Lake County are dedicated to assist at-risk youths with educational opportunities from preschool through college, empower their families and connect them to other needed resources.
Even with those resources, Wasatch Front cities need to learn from the difficult histories of many large cities that failed to meet the needs of at-risk youths and have experienced challenges over several generations.