Parents part of alcohol problem

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When it comes to underage drinking, parents often can be part of the solution. But sometimes, they're part of the problem.

Underage drinking in Steamboat Springs has gained attention in recent weeks after nine of 11 local liquor stores were cited by police for selling alcohol to someone younger than 21 during a routine compliance check. City Council members, police officers, school officials and others have been quick to point out that no single entity is responsible for underage drinking in the community.

But the role some parents play in underage drinking is significant.

Although most parents say they discourage their children from drinking, that isn't always the case here, Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich said.

"There are parents who think it's OK to have parties at their homes and just take their kids' car keys. Then there are parents who do the right thing and discourage drinking, and then they are chastised in the community," Knezevich said.

During her four years as a counselor at the high school, Joan Allsberry said she experienced the division between parents who allowed their children to drink and provided them with alcohol and those who felt like they were fighting a losing battle.

"I was concerned that a lot of parents felt resigned that their kids were going to drink regardless of what they did," she said. "One of my biggest concerns was that parents actually thought it was safer for their kids to drink at home. That idea is definitely sending these kids a mixed message. It is still illegal to provide alcohol to a minor and other people's kids."

Allsberry said parents often get caught in the "Well, you did it when you were my age" argument with their children. Instead of standing firm, some parents give in to their teenagers. And when three out of 10 families on the block are letting their children drink, it makes it harder for the other seven families to regulate the behavior of their teens, Allsberry said.

Survey sheds light

Underage drinking isn't a new issue for the high school or the community.

In 2002 and 2004, high school students took part in the SteamboatCares survey, which asked students about drinking, drug use, sexual activity and general health questions.

The results of the 2004 survey were surprising and concerning to school officials. Of the 468 students who took the survey, 53 percent said they had consumed five or more drinks at one time in the month leading up to the survey. Twenty-six percent of the school's seniors reported drinking or using drugs before coming to school in the three months preceding the survey, and 29 percent of seniors reported drinking or using drugs while at school or during the day in the three months before the survey.

The average age that students began drinking was 13. Nationally, 47 percent of high school students report consuming at least one drink in the past 30 days, compared to 52 percent at Steamboat Springs High School.

In related survey questions, almost 40 percent of responding students reported being drunk or high the last time they had sex. Thirty-six percent said that in the month leading up to the survey, they rode in a car being driven by someone who consumed alcohol within two hours of driving.

More than 91 percent of students said their survey responses were honest.

Although a SteamboatCares survey was not conducted in 2005, Allsberry doesn't think student responses would be much different.

Parents need to know

Steamboat Springs police officers often are the ones who deal with underage drinking and the parents of underage offenders. Like school officials, police Capt. Joel Rae said his department sees parents who differ in how they think about underage alcohol consumption.

"When we issue a minor-in-possession ticket for an underage drinker, some parents are very upset with their children, but some parents are very upset with the police. They don't want us talking to their kids," Rae said.

As a law enforcement agency, the police department's stance on underage drinking has always been the same -- if officers come across underage drinking, the minors will be given citations. If they're younger than 18, their parents will be called, Rae said. Police officers don't want to be "the bad guys," but Rae said parents need to know what their children are up to.

"We call parents so they know what their kids are doing. We work in the best interest of everyone's safety," he said.

Rae knows there are parents in the community who take different positions on letting their children drink. He knows some parents provide their teens with alcohol.

"People are always going to have different parenting perspectives," he said. "I have heard the theory that there are parents who think it's better for their kids to drink with them at home, where they can supervise it. But there are also those who would disagree with that."

Sandy Visnack, director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, the only substance abuse prevention organization in Routt County, said she also is concerned with parents who think it's OK to give alcohol to their teens. She thinks it sets a bad example.

Visnack said parents don't mean their children harm. In fact, they often think they are protecting them from drinking and driving or alcohol poisoning by supervising the illegal activities.

"The one thing for sure is that parents love their kids," she said. "They usually fear the drug and alcohol issue most of all, and sometimes (they) try different prevention strategies. There is no safe drug and no safe use of alcohol, which is a drug, on the developing brain. I ask myself, 'Isn't there something better to do with kids than serve them alcohol?'

"I do not believe that parents intentionally contribute to the problem. I think people sometimes run into difficulty when they impose their beliefs on other people's kids, such as hosting a party where alcohol is served to kids whose parents do not allow them to drink alcohol."

Changes afoot

In response to drinking and drug issues, the high school recently introduced a new events policy in which anyone attending a school-sponsored event cannot leave the event and return without buying another ticket. As part of the policy, event attendees no longer are allowed to bring open containers into the venues. Water, soda and juice bottles with cap seals that haven't been broken are permitted.

Knezevich said parents are split about the new policy, which was designed to keep everyone safer.

"I had a lot of recent calls from parents saying, 'Thanks for doing this,' and a lot of calls from parents saying, 'Why are you doing this?'" he said.

Knezevich said he realizes it will be virtually impossible to end underage drinking here, but he said more education for parents and students could lessen the problem.

For parents who aren't sure how to approach the subject of drinking, Allsberry advises them to start talking about it with their kids, and start talking about it early and often.

"Parents need to have dialogue with their kids early about sobriety and to not just lay down the law but to explain the rationale and reasoning behind being strict about drinking," she said.

"It's not like having the conversation once is enough. You have to continue bringing it up in context, not in some random and awkward circumstance."

Allsberry said there are many local resources for parents, such as chat groups. And Visnack said Grand Futures Prevention Coalition offers a variety of programs to teach students and parents about drugs and alcohol.

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboat pilot.com

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