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Survey highlights Marshalltown students’ home life, mental health and more

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS - The survey data includes the thoughts of nearly 1,000 Marshalltown sixth-, eighth- and 11th graders.

Nearly a quarter of surveyed Marshalltown students said they work at least one to 10 hours a week, and some work over 10 hours.

Marshalltown Schools Director of Special Services highlighted this and other findings gathered in a recent survey earlier this week. Every two years, thousands of Iowa students are asked over 200 questions about their lives, education, feelings and thoughts.

“Our family situations are different than a lot of communities,” Cretsinger said.

The data, collected in November 2018, showed about one-fifth of the sixth-, eighth- and 11th graders surveyed live in one-parent households. More than two-thirds live in two-parent homes, while the other 10 percent are living with relatives or with unrelated people.

Cretsinger highlighted information on the students’ perceptions of their home and neighborhood. While most said they feel safe in their neighborhood, a sizable number also said they live with someone who has a drug or alcohol issue.

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS - Marshalltown Schools Special Services Director Matt Cretsinger, left, says the Iowa Youth Survey is a useful tool for officials to help students.

“When we look at our demographics compared to districts of similar size, there’s a fair amount of concern reported by our students in that area, esp at the sixth-grade level,” Cretsinger said. Nearly a quarter of sixth-graders surveyed said someone who lives with them has a drug or alcohol problem, along with 18 percent of eighth graders and 15 percent of high school juniors.

On school environment, students had varying thoughts on feeling safe in school. Nearly all sixth-graders said they felt safe, while 87 percent of high school juniors and 78 percent of Miller Middle School eighth graders said the same.

“That’s a really important question. When you look at that, even though we look fairly similar to other places, we would love to have that be 100 percent of kids feel safe in school,” Cretsinger said.

He said some of the most concerning data had to do with bullying, weapons, drug use and mental health.

The survey shows a majority of kids feel safe at school, but 5 percent of sixth and 11th graders and 7 percent of eighth graders reported being threatened or injured by someone with a weapon at school or at a school event.

Additionally, 5 percent or fewer of students in the surveyed grades said they had brought a gun, knife or weapon to school or a school event.

“Even though those numbers may seem low, that’s still concerning to us, that there are incidents happening that often,” Cretsinger said. “Even though we don’t look that much different from schools of the same size, that still is concerning.”

When it came to bullying, the survey asked students specifically about verbal and physical bullying, as well as bullying based on race or color.

In the month prior to the survey, over one-third of sixth graders, nearly one-half of eighth graders and about a quarter of high school juniors said they had been verbally bullied. For physical bullying, such as being hit or shoved, the numbers were 19 percent, 20 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Eighth-graders reported the most race- or color-based bullying at 18 percent, with 13 percent of sixth graders and 12 percent of juniors saying the same.

Cretsinger said he was also concerned at the number of students in each grade who said they used tobacco, alcohol or other illegal drugs at school or a school event, despite the numbers being comparable to similar-sized districts. None of the grades reached more than 6 percent in that question area.

Self-harm and suicide were other tough topics reviewed in the survey. A low percentage of students reported taking medication for anxiety, depression and other common mental illnesses.

The numbers jumped, though, when they were asked if they felt “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row” in the year prior to the survey. In all, 19 percent of sixth graders, 27 percent of eighth graders and 32 percent of juniors agreed with that statement.

“That’s an indicator of early-onset depression or anxiety,” Cretsinger said.. “Those are still areas that we want to work on here.”

When asked about serious thoughts of suicide, 12 percent of sixth-graders, 20 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of 11th graders said they had considered dying by suicide in the year before the survey.

“It’s well-defined in the question for the students,” Cretsinger said. “As you get older and move through our system, they have thought about it more.”

Additionally, most students in those grades said they did not have much to be proud of.

“Kids are having this real lack of self-esteem on that self-reporting is what that’s showing,” Cretsinger said.

What now?

Cretsinger said the Iowa Youth Survey is one set of data officials can use to improve the schools and help students succeed.

“We compare it with other information we have with kids too,” he said. “We want to compare that to our office referral data.”

One effort currently underway to help students at Miller Middle School is the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener, or SAEBRS. That system allows teachers to report concerning student behaviors, as well as details about the student’s life that could impact their socio-emotional development.

School board Vice President Janelle Carter asked how past data could help with decision making.

“Do you see any change in trends over those years?” she said.

Cretsinger said the current version of the survey has only been given twice and it is hard to get trend data from only two data points. However, he said historically the district has “bounced up and down” on various survey answers. Projections based on the current survey show a similar trend.

“Our district is very consistent on having the bounce, we’re not having a steady incline or decline,” he said.

For a full report on the survey’s findings, visit https://go.boarddocs.com/ia/mcsdia/Board.nsf/Public, click on the May 20 meeting link and scroll down to item 4.04.