ATLANTA (AP) – Hispanic high school students use drugs and attempt suicide at far higher rates than their white and black classmates, says a new federal survey that has the experts somewhat perplexed.

More than 11 percent of all Latino students – and 15 percent of Latino girls – said they had attempted suicide, according to the report issued Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The white and black rates were about 7.5 percent.

Latinos also reported much higher rates of using cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamines; their use of condoms was at lower rates than the other population groups.

“We really don’t understand this phenomenon as well as we should,” said Dr. Glenn Flores of the Medical College of Wisconsin, who spoke at a CDC news conference.

The CDC survey of nearly 14,000 U.S. high school students has been conducted every other year, since 1991. Results reported Thursday were from last year’s survey.

Questionnaires go to students in grades 9-12 in public and private high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Researchers got parental permission for each student who participated.

Adolescents cannot always be counted on to tell the truth about their sexual exploits, drug use, or other risky behaviors. But officials took many steps to ensure accurate responses, said Howell Wechsler, the director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

“We have every confidence if there’s any lying going on, it’s extremely negligible,” he said.

Participation was confidential, kids were spaced apart when answering the questions, teachers did not hover, and the questionnaire was designed so everyone would finish at about the same time – no matter how risky or safe their behavior, Wechsler said.

The report contained some good news. Only 10 percent of high school students said they never or rarely wore a seat belt while riding in a car, down from 18 percent in 2003.

But the percentage of students who said they had smoked in the last month rose slightly – 23 percent, up from about 22 percent in 2003. Also, there was no decline in the percentage of students who said they’d had sexual intercourse, which held steady at 47 percent, or in the percentage of sexually active students who said they’d used a condom, which was 63 percent.

However, it’s the first time in 14 years that condom use among sexually active high school students has not risen, noted Martha Kempner, spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a New York-based nonprofit group.

“It calls into question the federal government’s investment in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, many of which openly discourage condom use,” she said.

Black students reported the most sexual activity, the most TV-watching and the highest use of video or computer games. White kids were the most frequent smokers and heavy drinkers, and were worst about eating enough fruits and vegetables.

But Hispanic students had other problems.

About 36 percent of Hispanics reported prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness, slightly higher than previous years.

In contrast, about 28.5 percent of black students reported such feelings in the 2005 survey, about the same as two previous surveys. And about 26 percent of white students reported such feelings, down slightly from 2003 and 2001.

In the category of drug use, 1 in 8 Latino students said they had done cocaine, 1 in 10 had done ecstasy, 1 in 11 methamphetamines and 1 in 28 heroin.

Hispanics reported much higher rates of drug use in previous surveys, and that hasn’t changed. The enduring disparity is concerning, said Flores, director of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Center for the Advancement of Underserved Children.

He noted that substance abuse is higher in Hispanic kids who are more at home with American culture.

“It’s unclear why that is, but we need to understand that better because then we can learn how we can protect all of our youth,” he said.

AP-ES-06-08-06 1718EDT

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