TRENTON - Students in New Jersey schools fought less but abused drugs more during 2007-08, according to a state report released Thursday.

The annual report of Vandalism, Violence and Substance Abuse showed a 5 percent decrease in violence incidents, an 11 percent decline in vandalism and a 14 percent decline in weapons violations.

But substance abuse increased 4 percent, including a 77 percent increase in unauthorized use of prescription drugs over the last three years, from 110 cases in 2005-06 to 195 cases in 2007-08. Instances of alcohol abuse dropped 17 percent over the last three years.

State officials said the increased abuse of prescription drugs by students is a national concern, and they hope to raise awareness of the issue.

"The concern for us is that students have more access," said Susan Martz, Director of the state Department of Education Office of Educational Support Services.

Students who are taking prescribed medications are supposed to leave them with the school nurse unless special arrangements are made. Most schools prohibit students from carrying any type of medication, even over-the-counter products.

In 2008, 15.4 percent of 12th-graders surveyed reported using a prescription drug nonmedically within the past year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Local district reports for substance abuse were mixed. Atlantic City, Wildwood, Cumberland Regional and Pinelands Regional all saw increases in the number of incidents. But incidents decreased in Egg Harbor Township, Pleasantville, Lower Cape May Regional and Middle Township. Southern Regional went from 14 instances in 2006-07 to none in 2007-2008.

Gang violence also dropped. Schools reported 36 gang-related fights in 2007-08 down from 81 the year before.

Martz said school districts have begun programs to monitor gang activity.

"Even if it is in the community, the schools have been trying to make sure it doesn't carry over into the buildings," she said.

Statewide, in 2007-08 there were 4,234 fights, 3,302 assaults, and 2,976 incidents of harassment or bullying. There were 1,155 incidents of weapons brought to school, plus nine incidents involving firearms possession.

The data is self-reported by the districts and there has been ongoing concern about the consistency and reliability of the reports. The state has released a video and manual to assist districts and will investigate if someone questions the accuracy of a school's report.

Vineland was cited for under-reporting during 2007-08, although the state's review revealed how different people can interpret whether an incident is serious enough to mandate reporting. An assistant principal had claimed that 58 incidents at one school were not properly documented. The state review found just 18 of them should have been reported.

Several local districts continue to report among the highest number of violent incidents. Trenton, with 11,447 students, reported the highest number of violent incidents, 252, followed by Edison, Middletown Township, and New Brunswick. Atlantic City was 12th with 117 incidents, Vineland was 13th with 114, Egg Harbor Township was 16th with 105 incidents and Millville was 18th with 97.

There were no persistently dangerous schools this year.

The report also shows that about a third of offenders are students with disabilities. As the state encourages districts to bring more special education students back into their hometown schools, state officials said it is important that both the schools and the students are prepared for the transition.

"We are doing some work in that area and looking at the effects," Martz said. "It's an important issue."

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

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