Coming from a sheltered suburban middle school in the Peninsula where it seemed that nobody used substances, I knew nothing about The Urban School’s culture of partying and substance use. So, when seniors talked on a panel about their experiences with drugs and alcohol and when sophomores in my Spanish class discussed their weekend plans, I became easily convinced that everyone at Urban used substances.
For most of freshman year, I was under the impression that I was the only person in my grade who wasn’t using substances. As Jennifer Epstein, The Urban School’s 9th grade health teacher, said, “the people who do participate in drugs, sex, any of that stuff, are more vocal, so they get more airtime.”
It wasn’t until I read the statistics of the annual Health Initiative for Peer Education (HIPE) survey that I realized there were many others with similar relationships to The Urban School’s often talked-about party culture. The survey is created by HIPE, The Urban School’s student group which “ support[s] health education within the Urban community”, according to its application from 2016-2017. The survey asks a wide variety of questions, from alcohol consumption to shaving habits to contraceptive use.
At George Washington High School in San Francisco, where Epstein previously taught, she “remember[ed] hearing from students that people would say things like ‘everybody smokes’ or ‘everybody drinks,’ making those blanket statements,” she said. In order to disprove these notions, she created a short survey for her students, which ultimately became the HIPE survey when Epstein came to The Urban School.
With a 94 percent response rate, the HIPE survey hopes to provides an accurate representation of students’ use of drugs and alcohol, as well as sexual health, which can help to disprove stereotypes about The Urban School.
“Because of its location [in the Haight-Ashbury], Urban has been regarded as a very substance-heavy school,” Lily Niehaus (‘18) , who came to Urban as a sophomore and is a member of HIPE, said. She continued, “The HIPE survey does a very good job of showing the true data.”
In the 2016-2017 school year, 38 percent of survey respondents had never consumed marijuana, 21 percent of respondents had never consumed alcohol, and 31 percent said that they never participated in Urban’s “party scene.”
Beyond providing the specific percentages for students who consume substances, the HIPE survey also gathers information about the specific ways in which these substances are consumed, which helps to shape the health curricula for 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. For example, “The way that people are participating in marijuana consumption has changed tremendously over the last 10 years. So, it makes me realize that I need to spend more time [in my classes] on marijuana with all of the ways people can consume,” Epstein said.
Niehaus recalled her experience seeing the results of the HIPE survey for the first time. “People don’t smoke as much as I thought they did, people don’t do as many crazy drugs as I thought they did,” Niehaus said. “And I felt a little more relieved,” she added.
Epstein seconded this effect of the survey, “There’s relief in a lot of kids who feel like ‘oh, I’m good. I can get out of this without doing any drugs. It’s not a must that I have to participate in this scene.’”
While for me, the HIPE survey showed how many people choose not to consume substances, some believe that the HIPE survey can create pressure for students to consume substances or have sex. Margot Bickler (‘18), a member of HIPE, said that the survey “creates an expectation for underclassmen when they’re looking at the upperclassmen statistics,” she said, “For example, if 70%* of the seniors have had sex, [someone could feel like] when I’m a senior, I should have had sex.”
Even without explicitly pressuring students, some feel that the survey can make students feel out of place. An anonymous student said that “A lot of [the survey] was very unfamiliar to me because as a freshman, I really hadn’t done a lot in terms of either of those regions [substance use and sex], so it was a little intimidating,” they said.
For others, the HIPE survey can give clarity about Urban’s culture. For another anonymous student, “knowing what was going to come in the future and what I was going to see throughout my years at Urban [was useful], and I think [what I’ve seen has] been really relevant and true so far.”
However, Bickler also recognized the value of the survey for all students regardless of whether or not they participate in consuming substances or in having sex. “It is nice for students to see that their experiences are valid, and that they’re going through the same thing,” Bickler said, “For example, if I’m a freshman, and when I’m a senior I don’t want to drink, it’s nice to see that there are seniors that don’t participate in the drinking culture or in the party culture. There are two sides of it.”
In many ways, the HIPE survey is illustrative of Urban’s culture as a whole. “The goal of Urban and the goal of HIPE is to be very transparent about certain situations, in regards to everything… [The survey] is kind of telling of Urban’s culture,” Niehaus said.
Another student, Belle Davis (‘19), supports the message of the survey. When seeing the survey results for the first time as a freshman, she remembered that “I was really happy that we have dialogue about these kinds of things,” she said, “I was comforted that we can have [a survey] and talk about it as a community.”
* Not the real statistic