At least 100 parents last week got the lowdown on teen-age alcohol and drug use during Westfield High’s third-annual “Saturday Night in the Suburbs” event. A panel of 14 students also gave the parents some value advice about communicating with their children.
SPONSORED BY the school PTSA and the Westfield Community Coalition, the March 15 event was to share information about the way teens behave when parents aren’t around. However, explained Assistant Principal Holly Messinger in her opening remarks, “Just because they’re discussing these things doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily partaken.”
All the panelists were seniors and represented a wide spectrum of interests and activities. For example, moderator Beth Seger is SGA president, Jake Bartlett is Senior Class president, Sam Thrift is on the track team and Paul Grinups is a state wrestling champ. Robbie Mellinger and Rachel Haney play volleyball, Michelle Little designs fashions, Mahati Gollamudi sings and dances, Rachel Cooperstein plays piano and JooHee Lee is in the orchestra and symphonic band. Other accomplished panelists included Meghan Ryan, Stephanie Kennaugh, Alex Vann and Laila Sanie.
Seger introduced each topic and asked the questions. In Part One, below, are the questions and answers pertaining to alcohol. Centre View will present Part Two, about drug use, next week.
Is alcohol use a problem at Westfield?
“It’s not necessarily a problem, but it does occur at Northern Virginia high schools,” answered Laila. “And it’s not limited to school,” said Meghan. “Some kids come to school with a hangover from the night before or drink before coming to school.”
Why do Westfield High teens drink?
“It’s something to do,” said Alex. “It’s different for every kid – rebellion, peer pressure, because it’s there,” said Robbie. Paul said teens drink because their friends do it, and Meghan blamed it on stress. “Some people think they have to experience it so they know what everyone else is talking about,” added Sam.
JooHee said it’s such a problem that “We’re not allowed to bring water bottles on band trips because some kids filled them with alcohol and the parents found out.” Mahati said drinking has nothing to do with grades. “Kids with 4.0 [GPA]s and kids who don’t do well in school both drink on the weekend,” she said. “There isn’t a typical, high-school drinker,” said Robbie.
“For a large group of students here, it’s a way of life — especially from Friday night on,” said Beth. “But for everyone who does drink, there are one or two who don’t,” said Mahati. “And they’re not the super-nerdy ones, either.”
Laila said some teens drink, while their friends don’t. “Some think they have to drink all the time; others, once or twice a year,” said Rachel Haney. “But it’s also important for them to find a reason not to.” Mahati said not everyone is drinking beer and, added Alex, “It might be easier to take vodka with you than beer.”
How do teen-agers get alcohol? Many get it through their older brothers and sisters at college, said Alex. Sometimes, said Sam, co-workers will offer to buy it for teens. Said Robbie: “Even a work manager — someone way older — will offer. ‘Wanna go to a bar?’ ‘Hey, I have school in the morning.’”
Rachel Cooperstein said a small percentage of students get alcohol from their parents. “It might be OK with some parents for their kids to have wine at home with dinner, but it could evolve,” explained Mahati. Beth said freshmen and sophomores are more inclined to swipe liquor from their parents than upperclassmen are. “Later, they can get fake I.D.s or have others get it for them,” she said. “It gets easier as you get into the upper grades, and you’re not as dependent on your parents’ liquor cabinet, anymore.”
“There’s also shoulder-tapping,” added Rachel Haney. “Teen-agers can ask an older person in an ABC store parking lot if they’ll buy it for them – and that needs to be monitored.” Sometimes, said Robbie, “Kids outside a 7-Eleven will ask someone older to buy them cigarettes.” Or, said Meghan, “People will come up while you’re pumping gas and ask you to buy them something.”
What about drinking and driving?
“Parents need to see that you value your life and your safety,” said Rachel Haney. “The most important thing to do is to protect your kids for the future and not have them worry about being grounded [if they need to call you for a ride home because they or someone else have been drinking].”
Would you call your mom if you’re not fit to drive?
“Now I would,” replied Paul. “As a kid, you only think an hour ahead. But you need to form a relationship with your parents.” Said Meghan: “Kids need to know they can call their parents [if they’re in a potentially dangerous situation] and not risk losing their lives.”
If parents have already forbidden their children to go somewhere in particular, said Robbie, then “a lot of kids just won’t tell their parents where they’re going.” But, said Rachel Cooperstein: “You [parents] need to talk to your children on the level of an adult. Tell them, ‘We trust you to be responsible and, if you get in trouble, it’s not the end of the world.’”
“Kids need to know where their boundaries are and what’s allowed and what’s not,” said Mahati. “Having faith in your kid is important.” According to Beth, “Freshmen and sophomores can’t drive, but are more inclined to get into a car with someone who’s been drinking, if they haven’t established that [good] relationship [with their parents]. They don’t realize how catastrophic it can be, and they’re more worried about getting into trouble with their parents.”
Mahati said teen-agers who plan on drinking should have a designated driver. “But then you’re putting your safety in someone else’s hands,” said Robbie. Nonetheless, said Rachel Haney, “Kids need to decide beforehand how they’ll get home if they’re going to drink. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and the decisions you make drunk aren’t the same ones you’d make sober.”
Are students aware of the dangers of alcohol poisoning?
“Yes,” said Jake. “We hear about the incidents here with other students, but have a teen mentality that it won’t happen to us.” Recounting how one student brought two bottles of vodka to a party – and then drank them both, himself, Robbie said, “People should say, ‘What a stupid thing to do.’”
Rachel Cooperstein said teens don’t understand how lethal alcohol poisoning can be until it happens to them. “A lot of times, they’ll continue drinking even after they’re drunk,” she said. “I’ve had friends coughing up blood because they drank so much,” said JooHee. “Parents should tell them alcoholism is serious and alcohol poisoning can be fatal.” If they haven’t seen the results of drinking to excess, added Laila, teens “want to try it for themselves.”
“Kids don’t understand that alcohol enters your bloodstream gradually and they won’t feel drunk or realize how intoxicated they are until later – and that’s the danger,” said Rachel Haney. “It’s not an instantaneous high, and kids don’t know how drunk they are until it's too late. With beer bongs or binge drinking, you put a lot of alcohol in your body at one time, and that can lead to alcohol poisoning.”