What’s a Community to Do?
“It’s time we stop fishing our kids out of the water and go upstream and repair the bridge,”
quotes Susan Prouty, local mother of three young adults, referring to an old parenting adage.
“But how do we mend the hole our kids are falling through?” Prouty asks.
The answer to that very question has been the topic of intense debate over the last couple months, after two high school soccer coaches and one parent were recently charged with allegedly providing alcohol to more than 40 minors at a party last November.
While a verdict has yet to be rendered, the issue has forced the region to take a hard look at its underage drinking epidemic, as well as at the programs currently in place to combat the problem.
Several Truckee-area adults met with the Sierra Sun over the past couple weeks to discuss to issue. Some are parents and some are officials, but all share the concern that the community has a serious problem that needs attention.
“[The soccer party] was a very important issue for the community because it opened up dialogue about things that we rarely talk about, issues about protecting our children, drinking and authority,” Prouty said. “…this is not a simple issue, there are no simple answers.”
According to Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Pat Gemma, underage drinking and drug use has been a challenge in every community that he has ever worked in.
“In this community, the problem has continued to exist, but we are well aware of it and have been making some real headway over the last couple of years,” Gemma said. “We’ll only really be able to make a difference after the whole community gets involved, though. As of now, we’ve been having some difficulty gaining consensus on what our exact goals should be and what steps we need to take to meet those goals.”
Gemma said the first, basic thing that needs to be agreed on is the fact that illegal use by young adults ultimately has a negative impact on the community.
“There are some people in the community who believe that students have a right to drink and use drugs, even though information has shown us that the earlier an individual starts using, the more the likelihood is that they will abuse substances later on,” Gemma said. “That’s the reason it is illegal.”
Drug Education 101:
While the district currently offers limited D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs for lower level grades, the bulk of the district’s drug education and prevention curriculum occurs at the middle school level.
“This is a real critical period for students because we, as adults, still have some ability to influence kids. They haven’t tuned out completely,” said Suzi Phebus, vice principal at Sierra Mountain Middle School and member of local the D.A.R.E.- Plus focus group.
Fifth graders currently receive the full 17-week D.A.R.E. course that focuses on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and tries to provide students with the skills they need to “say no.”
In seventh grade, students go through the QUEST Program and in eighth grade, Project Alert, both of which provide further education about drugs and alcohol, as well as develop personal strengths and skills.
“At the middle school level, we try and teach a program that targets the whole child,” Phebus said. “We try and teach a child that they are worthy, how to deal with their peers, and how to refuse drugs and alcohol. If a child is centered and feels good about themselves, the more likely it is that they will be able to make good decisions.”
Principal Mike Finney at Tahoe-Truckee High School agrees that the middle school years are the most important in terms of prevention and education.
“We can try and reinforce those lessons in high school, although by the time kids reach us, they’ve pretty much already made up their minds about the issue,” Finney said.
Currently, most of the classroom information regarding drugs and alcohol is disseminated through the state requirements course that addresses drinking, drugs, sex, health and drivers education.
The district also offers a program called “Death Every 15 Minutes,” a realistic reenactment of a fatal drunk driving accident in which students play the roles of victims, drivers, reporters and other parties involved. Local law enforcement and the fire department are also involved.
“The whole incident is carried out and treated as we would in a real accident – people are taken to the hospital, the driver is jailed and parents are called to be told that their children are dead,” said Officer Roy Richner, school resource officer with the Truckee Police Department. “Later, people who participate come back and deliver a presentation to the senior class about their experiences. It’s an extremely powerful program, and kids need to see reality as much as possible. Just reading about it or seeing it on television doesn’t really sink in.”
According to Laurie Martin, director of Community and Youth Development for TTUSD, drug and alcohol education are really just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the district’s approach to the problem.
“We use a model for positive youth development that seeks to build resilience in our students,” Martin said.
Positive youth development tries to focus on the positive things in students’ lives rather than just the problems they are having and works to develop students’ strengths, or “assets,” as Martin calls them.
“Studies have shown time and time again that healthy behavior is directly linked to academic success,” Martin said. “Our programs seek to bridge those two things, namely by creating three key things: high expectations for our students and ourselves, caring adult relationships for our students and opportunities for them to have meaningful participation in their community.”
Some of the programs that Martin mentioned include: service learning projects; the family resource centers; Challenge Days, which attempt to unite youth to talk about their concerns; counseling services at all school sites, both group and individual; and before/after school programs like the Boys and Girls Club.
“All of our programs touch on drug awareness, but what we’re really trying to do is provide kids with an alternative to drugs and alcohol rather than just preach,” said Allison Everist, operations director for the Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe.
Some of those programs include weekly trips to a recreation center, Friday night cooking classes and dinners, and monthly dances.
Areas for Improvement:
While the district’s current programs appear to be fairly comprehensive in their approach, some people still have concerns that those programs are falling short.
“At this point the programs are too fragmented at the middle school level,” said Marilyn Britto, local parent of three young adults. “The students get D.A.R.E. in fifth grade, tobacco education in sixth grade, QUEST in seventh grade and Project Alert in eighth grade.
Then in high school, students only receive what they learn in state requirements. It seems a little ridiculous to have one class cover alcohol, drugs, health, sex and driving in one class. You can only touch on each subject briefly.”
Britto and several other concerned parents are currently in the process of forming parent networking groups to educate both adults and students about drugs and alcohol.
“This would take a lot of the burden off of schools,” Britto said. “Parents can do more of the educating, providing kids with the information they might not be receiving anywhere else.”
Another area for improvement that several people cited was the need to create interesting and popular alternatives for teens.
“If kids stay occupied, if they don’t have any down time or time to get bored, than they are much less likely to get involved in drugs and alcohol,” Officer Richner said. “For instance, if they tire themselves out playing sports, it’s likely that they won’t want to go to that party where alcohol is being served.”
“We need to find ways in which kids can go out and congregate without drugs and alcohol like bowling or trips to Reno. Parents might not want to shell out the money for some of these activities, but it’s a lot cheaper than the fines or burial fees they could pay from the consequences of their child drinking.”
The problem lies in making those kinds of sober outings attractive to teens – a problem that factored in to the controversial soccer party in November.
“It’s a difficult situation because we, as parents, feel that one of our primary responsibilities is to keep our children safe,” Prouty said. “With the soccer party, people thought that they were just trying to keep their kids safe and instead they ended up enabling unhealthy behavior.”
Prouty said the community needs to find ways to reinforce and support parents in the idea that we don’t need to have parties such as that one.
“We also can’t treating drinking as a right of passage or initiation,” Prouty said. “In the past, other cultures have had various rituals for teens as they moved into adulthood. Now, we don’t really have a process, but we don’t want alcohol to become that process.”
“Sometimes parents aren’t as strict as they need to be,” Richner said. “They may realize that their child is taking drugs and alcohol, but they don’t step up to the plate and deal with the issue. Often they avoid the problem, let other people deal with it or say, ‘That’s law enforcement’s job.’ Kids aren’t learning anything if we just let them go when they get caught either.”
Mending the Hole:
What everyone does seem to agree on is the fact that in order to “mend the holes” in this community, everyone must be involved.
“Everyone has a role to play,” Prouty said. “To put the burden entirely on schools is unfair.”
Martin said the schools are doing so much as it is, but could do so much more with the support of the community.
“If everyone takes some responsibility, the results can be tremendous,” Martin said. “We really wouldn’t need drug and alcohol education if our kids have more meaningful connections with their community.”
For Martin, that means looking to students for input and allowing them to work with the various agencies on the issues they feel are most important.
“We also need to make sure that none of our students fall through cracks and that every kid feels connected to a caring adult in their community,” she said. “Everyone in the community has an opportunity to connect with a kid and help out. There are so really many opportunities for involvement.”
*Next week: Teens Talk about Underage Drinking in their Community
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