Town hall meeting about underage drinking discusses causes, solutions

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 10:06 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — During a Thursday night town hall meeting at Hickman High School, Heather Harlan asked students to put together an equation — about alcohol.

Harlan, a prevention specialist with Phoenix Programs, Inc., handed each volunteer a sign to hold, spelling out: "YOUTH + ALCOHOL & OTHER DRUGS ="

Car crashes, suicide, homicide and rape were among the twenty signs held up next.

The town hall meeting, hosted by the Youth Community Coalition, MU Wellness Resource Center and the federal Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking, brought together students, law enforcement and community members to discuss underage drinking in Columbia.

"We need to think about how we respond to the voice of our young people," Ryan Worley, coordinator of the Youth Community Coalition, said. Worley organized the event to raise awareness of underage drinking and develop collaborative solutions.

Meeting attendees said underage youth in Columbia often resort to drinking because alcohol is easy to obtain, is cheaper than other forms of entertainment and there is not sufficient legislation to deter the behavior.

Some students suggested high school parties are hosted because the parents think it's safer for teens to drink in one location, where adults think they can keep an eye on them and ensure they don't drive anywhere.

Ryan Terranova, a Columbia Police Department officer, said parents wouldn't find it as acceptable to keep teens' keys and allow them to use cocaine in the basement, but alcohol is just as much a drug.

"The parents just don't realize what alcohol leads to," he said.

Harlan said she would like to see for adults to be held more responsible when found supplying alcohol to a minor, which is currently counted as a misdemeanor, similar to a minor in possession charge. 

"Why are we holding young people to a higher standard of the law, when the alcohol had to go through an adult's hands at some point?" she asked. 

Meeting attendees split into groups to discuss the issue. At the end, they presented potential solutions, including:

  • Providing more alcohol-free activities available at night.
  • Making alcohol-free activities more affordable.
  • Educating students and adults about the dangers of alcohol more effectively, possibly by re-instituting the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program.
  • Discouraging parents from drinking with their children.
  • Encouraging the use of a party tip line, which would allow police to prevent planned parties from starting.
  • Empowering youth to pressure each other to stay drug-free.

Adults at the meeting encouraged students to pressure their friends to stay alcohol-free. But Cameron Foss, a high-school student, said that's a very hard thing to do.

"You stick your neck out to your friends, and all the sudden you don't have any friends," he said. 

Foss, 16, said he thinks many Columbia high school students attend parties hosted by college students, especially siblings, although they are often turned away by the party hosts for being too young.

Worley emphasized that the way adults behave matters in setting a good example for local youths.

"It's not just the one person," he said. "It's a community issue."

Lack of anti-alcohol legislation was cited multiple times as a problem in Columbia by meeting attendees.

"As a state, we've decided 'It's just not that big a deal,' " said MU Wellness Resource Center Director Kim Dude. She said financial cuts to alcohol and tobacco control show a lack of "support from the top."

The next step will be to bring the suggestions before the Columbia City Council.

Terranova said he found the meeting very positive.

"We spend so much time dealing with kids that break the law," he said. "We forget there are kids out there doing the right thing."

Supervising editor is Celia Darrough.

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