Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:57 PM on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When it comes to teen drinking, some practices working as they should

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

When Homer Police last month busted an underage drinking party on East End Road near town, the effects rippled through Homer High School Mariner sports teams.

Cheerleading and basketball teams lost members right as the Mariners went to Regions. Some players found themselves sitting at home serving out 10-day sports suspensions under the Alaska Student Activities Association Play For Keeps program and Kenai Peninsula School District rules that penalize students for being present where alcohol is used — even if they don't drink themselves.

But the suspensions also exemplify the kind of approach the Homer Prevention Project expects to use as it addresses two main goals: reducing underage drinking and adult binge drinking. The Homer Prevention Project recently received a $1 million Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant to tackle those two big problems. The project will use environmental strategies, said Homer Prevention Project director Esther Hammerschlag.

"What strategies can we have in the community to prevent these kind of incidences from happening?" she asked.

Play for Keeps is "a great example of an environmental strategy," she said.

Mariners involved in ASAA-sanctioned events got suspended after school officials discovered they were at the East End Road party within city limits. (Alaska State Troopers on Feb. 19 broke up a separate teen party farther out on East End Road near Basargin Road.) An anonymous tip just before midnight on Feb. 25 led officers to the drinking party, where they found about 30 minors. Police did not cite anyone, said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. No adults over 21 were at the party. Police made sure everyone present got home with a sober and responsible driver and also called parents.

Police did not give any names to school officials. Vice Principal Douglas Waclawski said school officials heard of the party on their own and started their own investigation.

"We have a lot of students who like Homer High being a nice comfortable place to be," Waclawski said. "If things happen they don't want to happen in the school, they tell us."

Robl said Homer High officials did call police to verify names of several students to see if they had been at the party.

Under the Play for Keeps Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug free program, parents and students in ASAA events from sports to honor choir watch an orientation video and then sign a contract acknowledging they understand the program and its rules. Students sign the contract when they join activities, said Dr. Teresa Johnson, ASAA director of student services. That contract has these main points:

• No possession or use of tobacco, alcohol and controlled substances at any time, on or off school property, and during the school year;

• An understanding of the penalties, from a 10-day suspension for a first offense to permanent revocation from any ASAA activities during the student's high school years.

The school district's Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association follows the ASSA Play For Keeps policy, but KPSAA also has a stricter rule, the proximity rule, which says that students not be present when other students use tobacco, alcohol or drugs and they are present. If a student goes to a party and discovers tobacco, alcohol or drugs, they are to leave immediately, Waclawski said.

The idea is that it can be hard to tell if a student did or did not do something. Students have admitted they were at a drinking party but claim they didn't do anything, he said. How can officials tell?

"The point is, illegal things were going on," Waclawski said. "You knew illegal things were going on, but you did not get out of there."

That approach also gives students a tool to resist peer pressure, noted Peg Coleman, director of South Peninsula Haven House and part of a group advising the Homer Prevention Project.

"It's hard for a kid to do," Coleman said. "For them to say 'I won't be able to play on a team,' that saves face. You're less likely to be subject to put-downs."

That's exactly the idea, said Homer High School Principal Dr. Alan Gee.

"The intent is for an athlete to say 'I can't attend.' It's an out," he said.

An environmental strategy works the way similar campaigns did against drunk driving and teen tobacco use. Through community awareness campaigns, a town changes its attitudes. The idea is to stop giving mixed messages about drinking, like liquor ads targeted to youth, Coleman said.

"There's this community colluding with underage drinking," she said.

Homer High has 275 out of 382 students involved in ASAA events. Waclawski said suspensions for students for tobacco, alcohol or drug use are relatively rare.

"We have very few instances of actually having to deal with this," he said.

ASAA's statewide numbers support that. Of the 212 member schools, about 20,000 students are participating in ASAA-sanctioned events this school year. So far, first offenders number 98 for tobacco, 89 for alcohol and 142 for drugs, mostly for marijuana, Johnson said. The success of the program can be seen in reduced numbers for second offenders: 15 for tobacco, 11 for alcohol and 25 for drugs.

As harsh as the penalty might seem to a student athlete who didn't play at regions and might even lose a chance at a college athletic scholarship, there's a positive note, Coleman said: nobody died.

In her work, Coleman said she's seen people who were held accountable for an action in their youth who then were spurred to make a change, potentially saving lives.

"I'd rather see people deal with consequences up front and save a life," she said.

"This is a good controlled place to make mistakes, have consequences and learn from it," Waclawski said. "That's really what we want in the end."

Police, parents, coaches, teachers and school officials working together like they did on the recent suspensions also shows how the Homer Prevention Project will form coalitions to address underage drinking.

"We need law enforcement, but we also need the school to be on board and these different groups that interact with youth and are involved with that population," Hammerschlag said.

The Homer Prevention Project is now in its data gathering and assessment phase of the project, she said. As it identifies root causes of underage drinking, it will develop strategies for dealing with them.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.