Underage drinking under the gun|[03/31/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 31, 2008

A series of town hall meetings beginning Tuesday will address underage drinking in Warren County, which survey data says is more prevalent than the Mississippi average.

The aim is to get parents talking with their kids about drugs and alcohol.

“We’re trying to educate parents,” said Nicole Bilbo, a prevention specialist at Warren-Yazoo Mental Health, which has also been conducting learning sessions with students at area schools.

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Students in public and private schools here completed drug and alcohol questionnaires in surveys handed out statewide and modeled the Pride and SmartTrack surveys.

Results for 2007 showed:

21.2 percent of Warren County students reported they drank beer the month of the survey. The state average was 18.6 percent.18.5 percent here said they drank wine coolers. The state average was 15.4 percent.24.6 percent here said they drank other alcohol. The state average was 18.9 percent.

According to survey data, 13 is the average age a Warren County youth begins drinking and those who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol-related problems after the age of 21, according to information provided by Warren-Yazoo Mental Health.

The town hall events will bring parents, health professionals, educators and students together to talk about the dangers of underage drinking and ways to curtail it. Health and social service workers will give presentations at the events, free and open to the public.

Bilbo said while parents are often anxious about drugs in the community, alcohol — the most prevalently abused intoxicant here — tends not to be considered seriously. “For some parents, it never crosses their mind to talk about alcohol with their teens,” she said.

Bilbo spoke to a Porters Chapel Academy class last week, illustrating that prevention measures don’t consist merely of lecturing by adults. Seventh-graders watched a video, then role-played in skits showing ways to say no to someone offering marijuana.

Allyson Sykes played the role of Tom, who is offered a joint by an older student he admires.

The skit written by Jarrod Winkler, Allyson Sykes, Matthew Boyd and Steven Ellis, offered humor as a way for Tom to extract himself from the situation.

“My refrigerator’s running. I have to go catch it,” Sykes, as Tom, told the older student.

If the scenario played out in real life, members of the group said they would probably have said no a different way.

Jarrod Winkler said his response would depend on how close he was to the person offering him drugs, but that whatever the case, he would say no.

Jarrod said his role model is his father, who urges him not to make mistakes and talks to him often about drug use.

“He’s always telling me about how not to fall into it,” he said.

Ellis said that as a new student at Porters Chapel Academy he encountered the private school’s policy of drug-testing students and it was a simple procedure. None of the four said they had ever been offered a beer or a joint or smoked a cigarette. The private school has active, on-going awareness programs.

The studetns share the hallways with high school juniors and seniors, an age group statistically more likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco and drug use. They said they know some of the older kids drink beer and smoke, but said they wouldn’t feel shy about telling an older person drug and alcohol use is bad for them.

Allyson, Matthew, Steven and Jarrod said tobacco products, dip especially, are what they see being used most.

“I mostly work with junior-high students,” Bilbo said. “I ask them, how many of 8th graders do you think smoke cigarettes, drink or use marijuana?” Students’ guesses are four or five times higher than the actual rates, Bilbo said.

There are more people to reach, Bilbo said, and that’s why town hall meetings were called.

“We are looking for educators, people in the community who are around kids,” Bilbo said. “If you’re a Sunday school teacher, if you’re an educator, if you are a parent…”

If you goTown Hall Meetings — Start Talking Before They Start DrinkingTuesdayPurks YMCA — 9 a.m.-7 p.m.Glenwood Circle — 5 p.m.-7 p.m.Porter’s Chapel Park — 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.WednesdayRiver Region Health System — 11 a.m.-2 p.m.First Baptist Church — 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.Mount Carmel Baptist Church — 6 p.m.-7 p.m.ThursdayElizabeth Circle — 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.