March 22, 2013

Adults should refrain from glorifying alcohol consumption, making beer and spirits the life of the party, when kids are involved in the events, a group of educators and substance-abuse experts said Thursday night.

"Do it where it's not so much in the public eye," said Carroll Police Sgt. Brad Burke, referencing recent St. Patrick's Day festivities and promotions that reached young people, not just the intended adult audience.

Burke joined seven other people on the panel designed to combat underage drinking. Ten people - including a reporter and Kuemper Catholic Schools President Vern Henkenius - attended the town hall at the Carroll Chamber of Commerce. Last year, Carroll-area leaders put together a Community Health Improvement Plan to address a variety of issues, including under-age drinking and binge drinking. The town hall was part of that effort.

Organizers said that according to a 2010 report, 34 percent of 11th-graders in Carroll County admitted to participating in binge-drinking.

Kuemper varsity football coach Chad Klein said Carroll's strong family and social networks can work against efforts to fight underage drinking. College students enjoy coming back to Carroll and they inevitably mix with high school students, who are often friends and even brothers and sisters. The college students bring their developing worldviews and habits, which can involve alcohol and partying, he said.

"Kids like to come back," Klein said. "That makes it tougher on kids who live here."

Klein added, "They all end up at the same places."

For his part, Klein holds practices at 7 a.m. Saturdays after games and said his coaching staff has made calls to players on Saturday nights at a specific time, say 10 p.m., to ensure healthy behavior. He also closely monitors the social-networking sites, Twitter and Facebook.

"If I find anything that's even questionable, I talk to them about it," Klein said.

But his efforts have limits, Klein said.

"December hits, as a football coach, I lose my influence real quick if it's a senior," Klein said.

Christy Jenkins, director of substance-abuse prevention for New Opportunities in Carroll, said she's concerned with the negative effects alcohol use can have on the developing teen brain, the prefrontal cortex specifically. That section of the brain is vital for complex thinking, impulse control and emotional development, Jenkins said.

Marie Sharon, clinical services director at New Opportunities, said early abuse of alcohol can lead to lifelong problems. She has seen people in treatment ranging in age from 9 to 94.

Much of the town-hall discussion centered on parental response to the teen party culture. Some parents actually will empower their kids by providing alcohol, while others work to keep their kids off the road, acknowledging that drinking does occur, and working to prevent worst-case scenarios by telling kids to stay overnight with friends or call them for a ride if they've been drinking, members of the panel said.

"That's kind of how they've dealt with it," Klein said. "I think they're a little more aware of trying to get them from behind the wheel."

The educators and experts said it is possible for parents to stand on principle and demand that kids abstain from alcohol until they are of legal age.

"It's rallying the community together and getting people of like minds," Jenkins said.

Henkenius said the drinking culture in Carroll is historically rooted in the community. But he's seeing those patterns breaking down.

"The culture is changing," he said. "There are new families coming."

Often, the newcomers have different standards on the heavy use of alcohol, Henkenius said.

"They don't like what's going on in Carroll County" with drinking, he said.

Henkenius said schools are doing fine work to prevent alcohol use among young people. But it is a challenge when high-profile, pop-culture stars celebrate their own abuse of alcohol and drugs, Henkenius said.

Ann McCartan, a Carroll Middle School nurse, said programs like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) are successful in giving kids the information and power to say "no" to poor decisions with drugs and alcohol.