Students and parents meet at River Hill High to discuss the perils of teenagers abusing alcohol

Officer urges, `Be a parent'

November 17, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

The father posing the question to the police officer sounded genuinely baffled.

If his son were to come home drunk, he asked, what should he do - "Is there a suggested route of discipline?"

Officer Mark Heron, who fights teen drinking for the Howard County Police Department, was clear. Be a parent. Go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and ask to have his license pulled. Do whatever it takes.

"You have the ability to grab your child and take him to the hospital and test him for drugs any time," Heron said.

More than 100 parents and teens attended a discussion about teen drinking this week at River Hill High School, hosted by the River Hill PTSA and HCDrugFree, a nonprofit that works to help teens avoid drugs and alcohol.

Though the meeting included the usual scare stories about drunken-driving accidents, it also gave children and adults a chance to talk about teen drinking.

They came armed with specific examples - one parent said she had decided to attend because her 14-year-old son told of a friend who had passed out from drinking.

Many of the parents who spoke seemed to feel that they couldn't control the problem. Some worry that if they crack down too hard, their teens will rebel.

Others said they would rather hold a party with alcohol than let children find it on their own. And they disagreed about whether they would tell the parent if they knew of a teen with a drinking problem.

Most of the students were from Centennial High and were receiving school credit for attending. Many said they got something out of the meeting.

The first hour was taken up with talks about the dangers of drinking, particularly as it relates to driving. Lisa Morrel, a substance-abuse counselor with the Howard County Health Department, said one out of five Howard County seniors report driving after drinking, and one out of three have been passengers in a car with a driver who had been drinking.

Debbie Yohn, a trauma nurse who lives in Carroll County, described her horrific accident at 17. The driver of the car died, she said, and Yohn did not walk for a year.

She also showed a video about a girl who had died in a drunken-driving crash several years ago. She had been at a party with friends and was driving to visit her boyfriend. "Not one of them said to her, `Katrina, you're drunk as a monkey. Give me the car keys.' " Yohn said.

Then Heron, known in the Police Department as the "party buster," described the legal ramifications of drinking, including jail times and fines.

Parents and teens had questions for Heron. One girl wanted to know what to do if she were at a party but had not been drinking, another what to do if a drink were spiked.

Parents asked about such issues as a party that takes place when a parent is not home, or what to do if they know another parent is holding a party at which drinking is allowed.

Heron had some sobering information for the adults: Parents are responsible, he said, if they know a party will take place. Allowing teens to drink is "irresponsible, and it's illegal," he said, adding that parents can be fined as much as $1,000 per child.

"Parents, I say be a parent," he said. "You're a parent first and a friend second. Sometimes you have to say no."

Laura Smit, executive director of HCDrug Free, asked the audience three questions that stirred discussion. Her first question: "Why is it that kids drink despite everything that is at stake?" Answers from parents and teens included peer pressure, rebellion and curiosity, along with skepticism among young people about the hazards of drinking.

Second question: "Why do parents and other adults sometimes provide alcohol for teens?" That query drew a variety of answers, including parents' desire to appear "cool," concern about being too strict or because they drink themselves and don't view teen drinking as a serious matter.

Smit noted that adults drink alcohol to relax and to ease social situations. Teens feel pressure to socialize and fit in more than adults do, she said. "It's so important in this time in your life to figure out what you are," she said. "And that means who you are when you're not drunk."

The final question was the one that nobody seemed able to answer: "What will stop teens from drinking?" The discussion ended on a somber note. When one teen said the death of a close friend might have that effect, Smit was skeptical. Even after such a tragedy, she said, teens often continue drinking.

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