Six seniors representing a cross-section of interests at Westfield High gave parents straight talk about drugs and drinking during an event called "Saturday Night in the Suburbs."
IT WAS sponsored by the school PTSA and the Westfield Community Coalition for Safe and Drug-Free Youth. Panelists were Zach Spees, Jason Love, Brittany Jackson, Danielle Bennett, Brittany Williams and Jay Lee.
"This is to give you an idea of what happens in the Westfield community on a weekend night," Subschool Principal Holly Messinger told the parents. "They'll be discussing illegal activities but, as a parent, knowledge is power. If you know what's going on, you can communicate better with your children. And this is not unique to just the Westfield community or Fairfax County. It's going on across the country."
Bennett, the senior class president, was the moderator and asked the questions.
"Is there a problem with alcohol at Westfield High?" she asked. "Some drink and some don't," replied Jackson. "It's a problem with select individuals," said Spees.
Lee said it's a "growing problem" at Westfield, but not a major one. And Bennett said, "I think it is a problem that teens spend so much of their weekend drinking, but teens here are no different than teens at other schools."
Why do they drink? "Temptation at parties," said Williams. "You want to fit in with the crowd," said Love. "It's not seen as that big of a deal," said Spees.
Is it limited to weekends? "No, kids do it on Tuesday nights just to do it — and that's pretty sad," said Spees.
Is drinking and driving a problem? "No, students are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving," said Jackson. "A bunch of my friends have done it, but I totally disagree with it," said Love.
Would you call your parents if you were drunk and couldn't drive? "They're there for you, and you should feel comfortable talking with them," replied Williams. "We understand there are consequences for drinking, but we need to know you'll be there for us if we need you," added Jackson. "Kids need to know they can come to them and not get yelled at," said Bennett.
Love said teens should find someone "who'll stay sober and drive for you." And, said Bennett, "In driver's ed and health classes, they really push that point home." Spees said he'd rather his friend be there for him if he was going to drink: "A lot of kids don't want to call their parents unless it's a last resort." Added Love: "Because it's a guarantee of getting in trouble."
A mom asked, "Realistically, how often do parents get called to pick up their children?" Love and Lee replied, "Almost never; you look to a friend first."
How do teens get access to beer and alcohol? "My brother gets his alcohol from older students," said Lee. "Fake I.D.s," said Love. "There are places to get them; they're not too expensive." Spees said teen-agers often do "shoulder tapping — people are willing to buy alcohol for kids for a few dollars."
What's your advice to parents on this subject? "Set rules for kids and let them know, if there's a problem, they can come to you," answered Williams. "Kids need to find a hobby to concentrate on so they don't have time to drink or do drugs," said Love.
"Parents need to recognize it's difficult to avoid drinking altogether because it's at parties," added Bennett. "But you have to put enough trust in your kids so they can come and talk to you about it."
A mom in the audience asked if there are parties where teens don't drink. Bennett replied, "At dance parties in people's homes." When asked if parties are "age-segregated," Bennett and Williams said yes.
Regarding what teens drink most, Bennett said, "Mostly beer, but everything." A dad asked when the "pervasiveness" of drinking starts, and Spees said juniors are a little more extreme than seniors. "It starts in middle school and right as kids get into high school," said Love.
Another dad wondered if teens involved in sports are less inclined to drink. "They know it'll harm their performance," said Jackson. "But they might do it together as a fraternity," added Spees.
Are drugs easily accessible at Westfield and outside of it? Williams answered yes, especially marijuana. "It's really easy," said Love. "Kids can get heroin, cocaine, ecstasy — and pain killers taken from their parents." Added Bennett: "And it gets progressively worse as you get older."
What should parents do if they suspect their child is using drugs? "Ask them," said Jackson. Give them a chance to be honest with you. And if not, you can have them tested." Love advised random drug tests, with no advance warning, "because there's stuff you can buy to wipe out the effects of drugs."
"But don't jump to conclusions," said Bennett. "Reasonable clues should be evident, and not just suspicions because they're teen-agers." Love said parents should talk to their children and establish trust. "And don't lie to them about your past," added Spees. "If you're honest with them, they'll be more inclined to take your advice."
What does the school do about drug use? "They educate us not to do it," said Jackson. "There's also TATU — Teens Against Tobacco Use. We talk to elementary-school kids about what tobacco can do to you — because they look up to teen-agers."
A mom asked if teens are influenced by what they see on TV, but Jackson said, "I think kids are influenced more by their peers." Another mom asked, "What takes kids from marijuana use to cocaine?" Lee answered, "The high." And, said Spees, "If your friends are doing it, you may eventually crack and do it, too."
A dad asked what's the best deterrent to drug use and what can parents do to develop trust between themselves and their children. "Having the willpower to say no" is the best deterrent, said Love. But "it has to be a personal decision," said Bennett.
"Parents should talk to [their children], whenever you can, as much as possible, before they go off to college," added Lee. "And appreciate the fact that your kids are trying," said Bennett. "I think that's a humongous factor toward building trust."
A dad wondered whether it's easier for teens to get drugs or alcohol. "I think drugs are definitely easier to get than alcohol because you don't need I.D.," said Love.
Messinger then told the parents that Westfield had a recent, random search of lockers, classrooms, backpacks and coats and some marijuana was found. "We were pleased with the small amount we found," she said. "But that told us they don't keep it in their lockers."
A mom asked what percentage of Westfield students use marijuana weekly, and Spees and Love estimated "200 or less" of the 701 seniors. Added Williams: "There are five people in one of my classes of 30 people who do it." When a dad asked about crystal meth use, Love said it's "really uncommon here."
Should parents call ahead to make sure other parents will be present at parties? "My mom says, 'Call when you get there, call when you get home,'" said Jackson. "Set curfews." But, said Bennett: "They'll be mortified and embarrassed if you call."
Do some parents allow kids to drink in their homes? "Definitely," said Lee, and all the other panel members agreed. "Parents think, 'If they're under my roof and under my control, nothing bad will happen," said Spees.
A mom asked if any kids go to beach week and don't think about drinking and sex. Williams said she just wants to get together and have one, last good time with her friends, to remember. And Love said he's looking forward to the beach, itself, and surfing and boogie boarding.
Another mom asked how parents can tell if their children are using drugs. "If they're really zoned out and don't feel like moving or doing anything," replied Love. "Have a conversation with them because kids don't want to talk when they're drunk or high."
In general, Messinger advised parents to speak with their children one-on-one, whenever possible. "They may be more open then and share confidences," she said.
"What disturbs me, as a high-school administrator, is that parents do not want their children to be held accountable," said Messinger. "They say, 'My kid's a good kid; I don't want this on his school record.' But we as parents should let students know the consequences for their behavior. Otherwise, it's a disservice to them."