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Statistics show youths are drinking earlier

When Saratoga County sheriff’s deputies broke up an underage drinking party in Ballston last month and charged 22 area teens with possession of alcohol, reactions varied.

Some thought the kids got a bum deal.

Many, however, agreed the community as a whole needs to remain proactive in stemming teen drinking.

Statistics show youths are starting to drink alcohol at an increasingly younger age. So how do parents and other adults get the message across about the dangers of teen drinking?

Scientific evidence links early use of alcohol to a number of physiological and behavioral issues for those who have not yet reached their early 20s.

“While many of them look like adults, their brain development is not complete,” said Patty Kilgore, clinical director of The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council of Saratoga County. “Brain development really doesn’t end until the early or mid-20s.”

Kilgore said the last part of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex — the portion responsible for judgment, memory and learning. She said until that is fully developed adolescents lead with emotions.

“As soon as kids begin drinking, they can not make the best decisions for themselves,” Kilgore said. She said young people’s judgment is affected by their first drink, while adults can have several drinks before their judgment is impaired.

The results of the poor judgment and bad decisions made under the influence of alcohol are a major concern, said Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III.

While people often associate drinking with drunken driving, Murphy said it is not the only issue to be concerned with. He said technology has brought a new problem — known as sexting — into the mix. Murphy uses an example of a girl who takes nude photos of herself and sends them via cell phone to her boyfriend.

“It’s 21st century flirting,” Murphy said. “Within an hour, that photo has been passed around.” It can lead to child pornography charges. Incidents like this become more common when people are under the influence of alcohol.

Add in an increased rate of absenteeism in school or dropping out all together, and Murphy said there can be a number of serious long-term consequences.

Education aims to prevent

When underage drinking becomes a criminal matter, Murphy said his office doesn’t simply prosecute the crime but offers the young people an education about the dangers of drinking so early.

“We want to get them to think about what might have happened,” he said.

The district attorney doesn’t want to saddle a teenager with a conviction that would affect the rest of their life. Instead Murphy pushes for community service or alcohol education courses before dismissing the charge against them.

Several of the alternatives Murphy recommends are offered by the county’s Prevention Council. The Risk and Responsibility class, offered the third Thursday of each month, is designed to help youth and adults understand the risks and consequences of their actions. The course helps youths understand how alcohol and other drugs affect decision making.

A second more in-depth course, Alcohol and Substance Abuse, includes guest speakers who address driving while intoxicated, dating violence, sexual assault and underage gambling.

Kilgore said most of the youths who participate in the courses do so out of obligation to the court, but the programs are open to everyone.

“I wish more kids would take the classes,” Kilgore said. “They would have more information about the myths and how alcohol affects them. We want them to understand what the risks really are versus what they perceive the benefits to be.”

The Prevention Council also offers a variety of in-school programs but most are at the elementary and middle school levels. Kilgore cites a lack of available time at the high school level.

Christy Multer, communications specialist for Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central Schools, said academic requirements leave little time for additional instruction on the dangers of alcohol and drug use, although the topic is incorporated into health classes. Students also may also learn about the dangers in science courses or physical education classes.

“We try to weave it into science, English … wherever we can from kindergarten through grade 12,” Multer said.

At lower levels, the instruction is more focused on having a respect for their bodies and keeping that body healthy. Kilgore said programs also need to emphasize good choices, decision-making, coping skills, and healthy risk-taking.

“We need to give them self- esteem and the reasons not to use,” Kilgore said.

It takes a village

Some parents believe that by allowing their children to drink under their supervision, the children will learn to drink responsibly. Kilgore disagrees.

“One of the best deterrents against drinking is parents saying no to drinking and having clear consequences if that rule is broken,” Kilgore said. “Those kids drink less. The kids allowed to drink at home do more binge drinking.”

Not only that, but it’s against the law.

“The law is 21,” said Cindy Dort, chairwoman of the community Laws and Norms Committee with the Saratoga Partnership. “Let’s not debate that, but teach young people to adhere to the law.”

She said children will make parents feel as though they are the only ones who do not allow their children to do various things.

“As an educator I know all the reasons, but as a parent, putting it into practice is hard.”

She said parents need to start talking to their children earlier, not waiting until they are teenagers to relay the message that drinking before they reach the legal age is not OK. Dort and the parents of her children’s friends together made a commitment they would work together to keep their kids safe.

“The kids knew we were going to be calling and asking questions,” she said. “We made arrangements for safe activities to be held by parents on a rotating basis.”

Dort said retailers, law enforcement, parents and other members of the community must come together and work as a team to educate and create awareness about the dangers of underage drinking.

Some communities have responded by establishing social hosting laws. The city of Mechanicville and the town of Stillwater each passed local laws making it a crime to host an underage drinking party. Mechanicville Police Chief Joseph Waldron said the law is as much about awareness as enforcement.

“This is a commitment of the community,” Waldron said. “We don’t accept this. We are sending the message to our children that we care about you.”

Since the legislation passed about a year ago, Waldron said the department has seen a drop in the number of people getting arrested.

“It has opened the eyes of the parents,” Waldron said. “They realize the consequences.” Party hosts are charged with unlawfully dealing with a child.

Stillwater Police Chief Dennis Latham said his town also has seen a decrease in calls about underage drinking parties.

Law enforcement agencies also carry out sting operations in which they send underage people into local stores to try to buy alcohol. Last month, the State Police visited and attempted to purchase alcoholic beverages at 28 establishments in Southern Saratoga County, and all refused to sell to the minor.

Local law enforcement officials will also have the opportunity to send staff to training on party dispersal. The Saratoga County Prevention Council is receiving a grant from the state Office on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and will provide a course on enforcing underage drinking laws.

“The more underage parties that get intercepted and broken up by law enforcement, the less drinking there is,” Ekman said.

Alternatives to drinking

At the Ballston Area Community Center, 9 Scott Drive in Ballston Spa, teenagers can hang out from 6 to 9 p.m. on weekdays. Open gym is offered three days a week and teens also can play air hockey, pool, ping pong or use the computers in another room.

“Kids like to hang out here because it is like social recreation for them,” BACC Executive Director Kathi Leigh said.

Students are asked to fill out a membership form and a survey of activities they would like to see available, but there is no cost to use the facility. Open gym nights can draw close to 50 kids.

Mike Laudicina, who spent 18 years as the youth director for the Saratoga YMCA, has recently taken the reins as the teen coordinator at the BACC. He sees providing programs and a hang-out place as integral to preventing teen drinking.

“If you keep them busy and involved in their community, it keeps them away from other things,” he said. “They build relationships here, and that builds a community where teens make their own decisions instead of going along with a crowd.”

Among the programs he’s looking to start at the center are a teen group that will focus on doing projects in the community, a “Girls Night Out” program for young ladies and a band program that will invite local teen musicians to come in and play. Laudicina also wants to start a “Saturday Night Blast” event for which the center would open once a month on a Saturday for teens to come in and play dodgeball, volleyball or other planned activities.

“Teens need a place to go,” he said. “It’s better than having them on the streets.”

source: The Saratogian

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