No easy answers to address underage drinking

Westport`s underage youth are getting the message that it`s all right to drink alcohol, as long as they are not driving.

Although they clearly understand that it is illegal, they are also finding covert ways to acquire alcoholic beverages.

Moreover, some parents seem to be partners in this duplicity by either outright condoning safe drinking that occurs in their home or by simply turning a blind eye to obvious displays of drunken behavior and illicit drug use.

These are a sample of the consensus reached by more than 200 community members that showed up to discuss underage drinking at the Westport Public Library Wednesday night.

The forum, part of the library`s Community Conversations series, was in response to the widespread incidences of underage drinking that reportedly occurred this month at Staples High School`s Homecoming.

In his opening remarks, Staples High School Principal John Dodig said, "You send us good kids. I wish everyone in the community knew about the extent of the involvement these kids have in their churches and synogogues, feeding the hungry and teaching tennis to inner city children."

However, he said, the prevelance of underage drinking in Westport is an issue that needs to be addressed by not only school administrators but also parents.

"I don`t know why parents can`t just tell their children that it`s not OK to drink," said Kim Murray Cooper.

The Westport mother has has six children; four attend Staples High School.

"You are not their friend. You are the parent," Cooper added. "We need to teach our kids that this does not have to be the culture of this community -- that everyone drinks on the weekends."

The large crowd spilling out in the hallway outside of the McManus Room was comprised mostly of parents, but also included school administrators, teachers and students, as well as police and healthcare professionals.

Coordinated by Nicholas Rudd, a members of Westport`s TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturism), community members broke into small groups to discuss special interest topics pertaining to this complex and emotional issue. Some of the issues discussed were parental involvement in addressing underage drinking, how to cultivate positive peer influences, affects of alcohol on the adolescent`s brain and a partnership between the town`s police department and local families.

The student participants offered valuable input in several of the discussion groups. They candidly acknowledged that although the homecoming motorcade has become an obvious hazard to both students and other drivers on the road, it is undoubtedly a preferred activity for kicking off the annual event.

A member of the school`s junior class asked for a chance to turn next year`s homecoming activities -- including the motorcade parade -- into an orderly display of school spirit.

"We realize that it has to change," she noted. "However, it is an important part of homecoming because it gets all of the seniors together. Everyone is involved, not just a few cliques."

She, in consensus with her fellow group members, proposed that students sign a waiver saying that they would not be drinking and driving. They would also agree to transport only an appropriately safe amount of drivers in their vehicle.

After sharing ideas in the small groups for about 30 to 45 minutes, everyone reconvened to hear each other`s conclusions.

More parental support for creating a zero tolerance policy for underage drinking in their homes and following up with strict consequences was unanimously supported.

However, several people stated that they were "preaching to the choir."

"There are parents out there who just accept that their kids are going to drink in high school and they knowingly allow the kids to have alcohol in their house, saying that at least they are in a safe place and that they are not on the road, drinking and driving," someone said.

Pam Kelly of Positive Directions in Westport provided handouts listing Connecticut`s statutes concerning providing alcohol to minors and hosting underage drinking parties in homes. A first offender would be given a citation and fine of approximately $142. However, subsequent offenses result in fines up to $500, one year imprisonment, or both.

There was a general agreement about enforcing an honor code, or contract, that students would voluntarily sign pledging to not drink alcohol.

Some athletic teams have contracts, but many parents complained that they are not strictly enforced.

A round of applause followed a suggestion of not allowing athletes who were caught drinking to play in a scheduled game.

However, silence ensued when the facilitator further noted that consequences of one team member drinking should have consequences for all of the team members and that, perhaps, the game itself should be forfeited.

"Our challenge is, how do we make it `uncool` to drink," she said. "What are the kids` values that we could attach our consequences to?"

Acknowledging that there are no easy answers, and the idea of not letting athletes participate in championship games was extreme, there was a general agreement about the need to "stir the pot" and get a clear message out there to middle and high school students that underage drinking is not acceptable.

Using breathalizers at school events was another suggested way of curbing underage drinking on campus.

The audience also applauded the idea of creating a directory listing residences where underage drinking was not tolerated.

"I am telling you right now, if you come to my house, your kids will not be served alcohol," said Cooper. "If your kids come to my house, you can rest assured that they`re safe."

However, she added that young people have to also take responsibility for upholding the family`s rules. "They have to be willing to tell their friends that come over, `I`m not doing it because it`s illegal, it`s immoral and it`s just not right.` "

Not only are children not doing that, one father said he was embarrassed by the youth`s blatant drunken behavior in front of parents, teachers and administrators during the homecoming game.

"Kids have no fear," a parent added. "They are not even afraid of being suspended."

Raising awareness for parents and young people about the adverse affects of alcohol and drugs on adolescent`s brain is one of the goals that came out of Wedensday`s discussion.

For more information about Connecticut`s legislation about underage drinking, visit, call Positive Youth Development at 341-1069 or Positive Directions at 227-7644.