By Joseph Robertia
The news of an incident is shocking — a teen assaulted at an underage drinking party. The assaults may range from embarrassing, such as a victim having their head or eyebrows shaved, to the devastating, such as with cases of sexual assaults. At least in the lesser events, adults might chalk it up to teens being teens. Some might read resulting headlines with a disapproving tsk-tsk and go on about their business, not to think of the issue again.
One local entity wants to do more.
“We have reasons to be alarmed, but there are things we can do in this community, as a community, to make positive changes,” said Stan Steadman, a member of People Promoting Wellness though Community Action.
The group held a town hall meeting Friday to discuss underage drinking, facilitated by the Roundtable Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue. The goal was to create a community dialogue to share information about how underage drinking affects local youth and the community as a whole, and to gather community input on what can be done to address this issue.
Steadman shared statistics compiled by the state’s Division of Behavioral Health. Kids who drank prior to age 13 had a 47 percent chance of becoming addicted to alcohol at some point in their lives.
While these numbers were shocking to those in attendance, Steve Atwater, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, shared even more grim statistics that focused specifically on local numbers.
“I see a lot of data about our kids, and our kids are drinking more than the rest of Alaska, and that’s concerning. There are few incidents of alcohol in schools or kids drunk at school, but it is prevalent on weekends,” he said.
Atwater was citing information provided by Kenai Peninsula students themselves, gathered during the biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Atwater cited further numbers from the 2013 survey.
“Of the kids who answer they had already had a few sips once in their lifetime, 74 percent of seniors and 50 percent of freshmen said they had. In the last 30 days, 40 percent of seniors said they had had a drink, as did 19 percent of freshmen.
“Perhaps most concerning, when asked if they had ever consumed five or more drinks in an evening — and more than five drinks is considered binge drinking — 28 percent of seniors said they had. Five drinks is a lot for a 17-year-old, and this means more than a quarter of our kids are getting hammered, and that’s frightening,” he said.
Atwater added that 11 percent of freshmen had also responded that they have drunk five or more drinks in an evening. Combined with the seniors’ numbers, this is above what teens around the rest of Alaska are consuming.
“This is 1.5 percent more than the state average, so Kenai Peninsula kids are drinking more,” he said.
Those in attendance speculated several possibilities to explain why this area has a higher “culture of acceptance” for alcohol consumption. Shari Conner, an intake coordinator at Serenity House Treatment Center, which focuses on recovery from chemical dependencies, said that in gathering data from the Alcohol Board, it was learned that the local area has, per person, four times the amount of liquor licenses as the Anchorage area.
“This means more avenues for obtaining it,” she said.
Atwater said that he has heard anecdotal evidence to suggest some parents allow alcohol consumption by minors to occur at their home because they believe it is better to have the kids supervised than drinking away from the home in an unsupervised setting or where they may drink and drive.
One parent, Holly Palmer, who is a mother of four kids ages 14 and younger, said that until Friday’s meeting, she was somewhat unfamiliar with the alcohol problem in the area.
“Alcohol seems so unevil compared to what else is out there, but it’s really not,” she said.
The problem of why teens use alcohol is multifaceted, as several people in attendance brought up.
Curt Shuey, who works with kids as part of the Talking Circle program overseen by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said that some kids have said they used alcohol as a form of intentional self-medication. Jason Howard, a military veteran injured by roadside bombs while serving in Iraq, speculated that the problem could also be one of an endocannabinoid deficiency, and people are using alcohol to erroneously treat symptoms that medical-marijuana extracts could resolve.
Michele Aranquiz, who raised several children in this area, said she believed that some kids use alcohol to distinguish themselves from others.
“Kids who go to high school with no identity try to find one, and sometimes that’s being the hardest-partying kid,” she said.
Many proposed solutions were put forward for further discussion.
“Kids involved in athletics programs know they’ll face consequences if they consume alcohol or for even being at a party where alcohol is served,” Atwater said, citing this as a violation of Alaska Student Activities Association rules.
Other outcomes of the meeting included:
- Gather more information from youths.
- More community education, specifically on treating alcohol storage in the home more like firearm storage.
- Collect information on successes from other communities around the country that have made positive inroads to their alcohol-related problems.
- Create more opportunities for youths to make meaningful contribution within the community and provide more opportunities for them to find nonalcohol-related identities.
- Offer more recovery support resources for kids ages 14 to 17, since adult Alcoholics Anonymous meetings may be too intimidating.
- Consider ways to create more “dry” homes, neighborhoods or larger areas.
- Merge with other local groups that have similar missions.
- Identify the challenges of educating adults.
Atwater said that parents must learn to change their notion that because they drank and turned out OK, the same will be true for their kids. This will entail teaching people to view alcohol in a different way.
“People focus on fixing kids,” he said. “But the kids are the way they are for a reason, and that’s what needs to be identified and fixed.”