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Community confronts drinking, drugging -- First of two parts

Teen drinking at Bainbridge High School is above state averages, a recent survey shows. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Photo Illustration
Teen drinking at Bainbridge High School is above state averages, a recent survey shows.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Photo Illustration

"Just Know. Bainbridge Coalition for Youth and Parents" hosts a forum to educate parents about teen substance abuse and depression, runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 15 at the BHS LGI Room. Keynote speaker is Phil Talmadge, former state senator and Supreme Court justice. Workshop topics will include marijuana abuse; drug overview; legal, monetary and health ramifications of unchaperoned parties; and teen depression. The Just Know coalition includes Bainbridge Youth Services, Boys and Girls Club, Imagine Bainbridge, It’s About Time for Kids, the police and fire departments, and the Bainbridge Island School District. The event and lunch are free. Parents of children of all ages invited.

Registration: 780-1398 or www.bainbridge.wednet.edu.

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Two Bainbridge High School sophomores, girls who’d been friends since preschool, planned to meet classmates at the Pavilion.

The boys turned up with an older friend, and the 19-year-old had brought along a water bottle filled with vodka. Mixed with soda, the taste was smooth, and neither young woman recognized the potency of the hard liquor.

Within hours, one was semi-comatose from alcohol poisoning.

The near-fatal incident last fall brought together parents and teens involved, culminating Nov. 15 in a public forum by Just Know, a new coalition for parents and youth.

“The kids wanted to do something,” said island counselor Billie Taylor, facilitator since last year of parent meetings on substance abuse. “I said, “if it’s that big a problem at the high school, why aren’t we talking about it?’”

The Just Know forum marks the latest effort in a 26-year fight to reduce risky behaviors.

In 1977, when the district participated in the pilot program “Here’s Looking at You,” which started drug education in elementary schools. Since then, there’s been DARE, a program that brought specially trained police officers to fifth or sixth grade classrooms; Straight Talk; and two programs still in play, It’s About Time For Kids and the Parent Party Patrol.

But Bainbridge students still “drink and drug.” The latest in a series of statewide studies shows Bainbridge high schoolers significantly above the state average for consumption of alcohol.

“It’s been an issue for maybe the last 100 years of public education,” school board member Bruce Weiland said. “The school board and every teacher and administrator I know has always been concerned with drugs and alcohol and teen risk behavior. So it’s a subject that continually cycles back.”

While the problem is perennial, the issue may have acquired new urgency with the release of a American Medical Association report last month, based on two decades of research.

According to the report, even teens who drink moderately risk permanent brain damage; magnetic resonance imaging showed the hippocampus – a part of the brain controlling memory and learning – to be 10 percent smaller in even short-term or moderate-drinking teens. Prefrontal lobes key to personality formation were also impaired.

Drinking teens scored lower on vocabulary, visual-spatial and memory tests than their non- drinking peers, and were more subject to depression and suicidal thoughts.

The report cites 12 as the average age for experimenting with alcohol, with close to 20 percent of those teens going on to become binge drinkers consuming four to five drinks in a row. Teens who binge-drink once a week were less likely to go to college, marry or become financially independent.

According to the 2002 Healthy Youth Survey, administered statewide, 36 percent of BHS seniors admitted they had been binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks – at least three times, nearly 10 percent of respondents said.

BHS students drank more than in 2000, bucking state trends; 42 percent of sophomores drank at least once over the 30 day period of the survey, compared to a state average of 29 percent. For seniors, consumption rose 10 percent to nearly 60 percent, while the state average fell to 42 percent. Alarmingly, 72 BHS students answered “yes” when asked if they had seriously considered suicide over the last year.

The problem’s lack of a “direct venue” makes it tough to address.

“If we think our kids aren’t learning math, we go to the math class and try to change it,” he said. “But if you’re trying to address health habits and behavior, it’s something that’s shared by school, family neighborhoods and even the whole community. That tends to make it hard to figure out the solution.”

New ways

At island middle schools, years of “Just Say No” absolutist approaches to drug and alcohol education have given way to a student-directed effort.

BHS senior Dylan Preble, ASB secretary and Bainbridge Youth Services board member volunteer is part of T5 – Teens Teaching Tomorrow’s Teens Today.

T5 goes into middle schools to talk to students and parents about substances; the group emphasizes resisting peer pressure and making educated individual choices.

The approach apparently resonates with students.

“I’m tired of people saying the same things over and over: ‘Do it once and you’re addicted,’” one student says. “When T5 stopped by, it was nice because they put a real spin on it. The kids could talk because they are teens, they know the stresses.”

Faith Chapel, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, served as principal in Lake Oswego, Ore., a district demographically similar to Bainbridge. That district addressed similar problems with a Just Know-style, multiple-agency approach more than a decade ago.

While some students continued to use, some change was effected.

At Lakeridge High School, she said, a single student who made the public decision to not drink opened the door for others to abstain.

“The first student who did that got some negative phone calls from other students,” Chapel said. “But, over time, it kind of broke the ice for other students to come forward and be more vocal about their decision not to drink.”

The community-wide effort to reduce kids’ risky behavior may be effective, Weiland says, with dedication and focus.

“I think there are people in the schools and in these institutions that have been working on these issues for years and done incredible things,” Weiland said, “but this is the first time that this level of commitment has been brought together around one table.”

District Superintendent Ken Crawford and interim BHS Principal Brent Peterson are being credited for ratcheting up the schools’ dedication to change.

One attitude change is less finger-pointing; the problem belongs to neither the school district nor parents, but is community-wide.

“The issue is a change of culture,” Weiland says, “and to me, my favorite example of a change of culture is the way we now, kids included, are aware of issues of drinking and driving. And seatbelts.

“And how did it happen? For years, it was a matter of marketing and pushing and chipping away at the resistance.”

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