Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Girls who participate in the Best Friends abstinence program are substantially less likely to use drugs or engage in premarital sex than peers who are not in the program, a study says.

The peer-reviewed study, published this month in the Institute for Youth Development’s Adolescent & Family Health, also found extraordinary results among the Best Friends’ high school participants, known as Diamond Girls.

The Diamond Girls were more than 100 times less likely to engage in premarital sex than high school girls who were not in the program, study author Robert Lerner said yesterday.

Mary Ann Solberg, deputy director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the findings impressive.

“We must continue to support programs that have real outcomes — and these are real outcomes,” she said.

The Best Friends program, in its 18th year, uses school-based curricula, fitness classes, mentoring, role models and community service to help girls in sixth through eighth grades make healthy choices during adolescence — such as abstaining from drugs, alcohol, smoking and premarital sex. A companion program for boys, called Best Men, began in 2000.

Best Friends, which recently won a three-year federal abstinence grant, does not teach girls about contraception.

The Lerner study compared several years of data on Best Friends girls in the District with data from girls of the same age and in school districts that were part of the federal Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS).

Mr. Lerner found that Best Friends girls were eight times less likely than YRBS girls to use drugs and more than six times less likely to have premarital sex — both strong outcomes.

Best Friends girls were more than twice as likely to not smoke and almost twice as likely to not drink alcohol as YRBS girls. More than 2,700 girls were involved in this comparison.

At the high school level, a total of 800 YRBS girls and Diamond Girls were compared. Diamond Girls were nearly 120 times less likely to have premarital sex — an “amazingly” high number, Mr. Lerner said. Diamond Girls were also 26 times less likely to use drugs, nearly nine times less likely to smoke and three times as likely to abstain from alcohol.

Best Friends founder Elayne Bennett said the study provides “concrete evidence” about the effectiveness of the program. Most teens say society should provide them with a strong abstinence message, she said. “The teens get it. The young people get it. This is the message they want to have. I just wish more of the adults got it.”

However, Debra Hauser, an official with Advocates for Youth, challenged the study, saying it provided only a “snapshot” of young people who “choose to be in the Best Friends program versus those that do not.”

Adolescent & Family Health is published quarterly by the Institute for Youth Development, a nonprofit group that studies ways to help teens and families avoid alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, tobacco and violence.

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