Even if they don't drink, high school students in West Hartford are exposed to drinking, and the entire community needs to increase its understanding and awareness regarding the problem of binge drinking.
That was the message heard by approximately 150 people – adults and teens – who gathered at Monday night for "." The Town Hall meeting, sponsored by the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission as well as a consortium of local organizations, focused on the awareness and prevention of underage drinking. The event included a mini-expo, entertainment, viewing of a teen-produced video, and a panel discussion in response to questions raised by audience members.
A survey completed by West Hartford students in 2011 indicated the following statistics, which organizers called "alarming":
- 30 percent of West Hartford high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past month.
- 17 percent of all students reported having been drunk in the past month.
- 56 percent of students who reported drinking in the past month also reported having been drunk at least once in the past month.
The Community Action Research Team, a group of teens which included student Caroline Crafts and student Delaney Patterson, wanted to know more about the underlying reasons for this behavior, and conducted further research with their peers. The teens used that information to create a research-based video, "New Year's Eve Party," written and acted in by local students to specifically raise awareness of the dangers of binge drinking.
"New Year's Eve Party" was produced by The Institute for Community Research, in partnership with the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission, HartBeat Ensemble, Steven Laschever Photography, and Kwamba Productions, and was funded by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The video, which premiered at the Town Hall meeting and provided the basis for several questions raised during the panel discussion, presented a situation where teens were faced with peer pressure to drink. It offered several alternative endings to illustrate that one person's choice can affect the outcome of a potentially dangerous situation.
School Resource Officer Art Yepes, the West Hartford Police officer assigned to Conard High School, said that binge drinking is currently the most alarming problem he sees. "They know we check at dances," Yepes said, so some teens quickly drink a large quantity of alcohol in advance.
"They get very creative," said Officer Jose Rivera, Hall's School Resource Officer. Rivera said some teens will soak Gummi Bears in a bowl of alcohol. The Gummi Bears absorb the alcohol but don't grow in size so it's not obvious.
Yepes said that the West Hartford Police, as well as School Resource Officers from throughout the area, keep each other up-to-date on creative tricks like that which appear on the internet.
Crafts and Patterson joined LCSW/Therapist Geoff Genser, Dr. Charles McKay from the Harford Hospital Emergency Room, a representative from Alcoholics Anonymous, and Yepes on a panel that responded to audience questions. Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green moderated the discussion.
"Don't ignore it, shove it under the carpet – face it head on," said Genser, who said parents should let their kids know they are not okay with them drinking.
In response to a question about when to worry, Genser said to use the first time you find out your teen has been drinking as an opportunity. "Let them know that the next morning you will talk about it, but approach with an attitude of concern," Genser advised. He said the most important thing is to be able to sit down and talk about it with your son or daughter.
Yepes agreed that parents need to discuss drinking with their children as early as possible, and warned that it's also a gateway drug. He has been a police officer in West Hartford for more than 22 years, and during that time has seen four West Hartford kids die of alcohol poisoning.
McKay provided the medical perspective on binge drinking, and the dangers of beverages like Four Loko which contain a concentration of alcohol equivalent to four or five beers in a just one can.
If consumed quickly as a single drink, the alcohol level in the blood and brain climb at an extrememly fast rate, not allowing the body's normal metabolism to slow the reaction. "It gets to the brain quickly, and progresses through the effects of becoming giddy, then unsteady, then having trouble walking, and maybe passing out," McKay said. Choking on one's own vomit is potentially a fatal effect.
Binge drinking is a universal – not just local – problem because alcohol is so accessible. Every organ of the body is affected by it, McKay said.
Patterson said that through making the video she learned about how much kids are actually drinking. She said that kids need role models – those who don't drink at all as well as those who do drink.
Crafts said that based on the survey, "Over half of us were convinced that over half of us drank." In reality, she said that two-thirds of local students are having fun without alcohol.
In response to a question about whether or not drinking is a "given," Genser said, "It's a given that our kids are going to be exposed to it ... You have to know your kids, know your family, set expectations." The lines get blurry when parents offer alcohol to their kids or drink with them, even at family celebrations, he said.
"Exposure is a given, but giving in to peer pressure is not. These are all decisions they'll have to make without you by their side," McKay said.
"Be a parent first; be a friend second. You've got to make sure they're safe," advised Yepes.
Participating community organizations included: ; Capital Area Substance Abuse Council; West Hartford Community of Concern; CyberCompass; Family Resource & Development Center, LLC; Governor's Prevention Partnership; ; MADD; ; UConn Health Center Alcohol Research Center and Injury Prevention Center; ; The Institute for Community Research; .