The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 12, 2002

News

Carlisle wrestles with teen drinking

"Alcohol is a huge problem here. My sense is it's hard for kids to go out on a weekend and avoid alcohol or marijuana." Art Dulong, principal of the Concord-Carlisle High School, may have surprised some Carlisle parents with this statement at a Carlisle School Association-sponsored presentation on March 21.

Dulong was responding to a question about what surprised him in this, his first year at Concord-Carlisle. After noting many positive surprises, including the caring community and the supportive teaching staff, Dulong mentioned the alcohol problem, and pointed to the twelve athletic suspensions for substance possession at CCHS this year. Comparing Concord-Carlisle to Lexington, the town where he was associate principal and where he coached track for many years, Dulong concluded, "It seems to be a bigger problem here than other places."

In follow-up interviews, Dulong and Carlisle Police Chief David Galvin spoke to the issue of substance abuse among teens, expressing significant concern. "It's a problem here," Chief Galvin agrees, noting that he expects to see an increase in calls related to alcohol as the weather warms. "Throughout the summer we average an incident per weekend."

He adds that high schoolers report alcohol use is more pervasive among Carlisle students than among those from Concord, and credits this to "a desire to fit in when they go down to the larger community."

Dulong sees alcohol as the main concern because it's easily available. On the other hand, he says, "I don't doubt that if I went into the corridor of the high school, picked a student at random and gave him $50 to get drugs, most would be able to." But Galvin notes, "It's infrequent that we have an arrest for other types of drugs (than alcohol or marijuana), and then it's almost always someone from outside of town." He notes the drug "ecstasy," a major concern in surrounding communities, has yet to be found in Carlisle.

Activities for teens needed

Dulong believes substance abuse is fed by a lack of alternatives. "There's nothing for these kids [in Concord and Carlisle] to do, and nowhere to hang out." In Lexington "there's a movie house and coffee shops" and high schoolers enjoy the park at Depot Square "where they can hang out and play frisbee."

At the CSA talk, Dulong defended the reinstated high school dances (which were cancelled two years ago because kids were showing up inebriated, among other issues). Describing new controls and policies, he concluded, "The dances aren't perfect, but they're safe, well-managed, and kids are having a good time." Most of all, they provide an alternative to house parties. "At least we know they're not drinking while they're here."

Galvin agrees that "activities for kids are good," but sees peer pressure as the real root of the problem. He compares Concord-Carlisle to Winchester, where he is raising two teen-aged daughters. Although Winchester has several pizza places and similar shops, he notes, "What kids do in the evening is very similar to Concord-Carlisle; kids want to hang out in homes."

Home alone

"An empty house is a magnet" for substance abuse, says Dulong. "I'm impressed there is a subculture that, each weekend, seeks out an empty house (where parents aren't home), then spreads the word." He also notes that houses where "parents aren't home until 6 p.m." during the week can sometimes become the site of substance abuse among unsupervised teens.

Galvin agrees that partying at houses where parents are away is "absolutely a problem." A typical scenario involves "parents going away for a weekend or an evening. The kid e-mails a few friends to come over and ends up with 50 kids." In this way, even a kid who isn't a troublemaker gets into a bad situation. "At this age, they don't have the wherewithal to turn kids away."

Although Galvin says he is "somewhat sympathetic" (particularly if the teen calls the police when things get out of control), the police policy is, "If you're in possession, you're going to court." That said, "it's difficult to prosecute ­ it's pretty rare to find anyone still holding a beer when the police enter." Instead, Galvin will insist on a meeting with the parents and the teen on Monday morning to review the offense and determine consequences. At minimum, high-schoolers in possession are reported to CCHS, which has a policy of suspending violators from athletic participation for the rest of the season.

Galvin counsels parents to "either stay home or take your teen-age son or daughter with you." He notes one Carlisle house where the police have been called several times while the parents are away and "the parents just don't get it." Even leaving a teen-ager with a sitter is "not always effective" as "kids know how to pull the wool over their eyes."

Parents providing alcohol

A rarer problem is the parent who condones substance abuse at their home. Dulong spoke of parents who "think drinking is no big deal" as long as they don't allow drinking and driving. But, he noted, at-home drinking is not benign. "Date rape is almost exclusively related to drinking" and "party games often lead to sickness and stupor." He points out a student was recently hospitalized in "what could have been a very serious situation."

He later added, "I'm not talking about a glass of wine at a family wedding. But I'm fairly conservative on this issue. Any acceptance is too much. Parents have said to me, 'Kids will be kids and it's better they drink at my house.' I don't believe this is a good message, and bottom line, you're breaking the law."

Galvin says parents like this are "the exception rather than the rule," but adds, "I have spoken to some who will say 'drinking is part of growing up' and don't feel strongly against it." In his experience, "Those parents are looking for trouble. If they're caught providing or condoning, there are laws against this, and we will pursue it... Alcohol has the potential to be very injurious, and our job is to make sure kids are safe."

Check up

Galvin has advice for other parents of teens: "call and verify." Speaking of his own daughters, he says, "I call, and they hate that." His teens think he and his wife are overprotective ­ that between his job as police chief and hers in the emergency room at Lahey Clinic, they've seen too much. But Galvin says, "I'd do this regardless. Parents shouldn't put their heads in the sand. Good kids make mistakes." He adds that having a circle of friends with similar values helps because, "It's hard to be the only parent calling."

Galvin passes on another lesson he learned as a parent: "Let kids hang-out in your home" where you know they are safe. "Give them some privacy and let them feel comfortable bringing friends over so they don't always want to go out."

Dulong notes that in Lexington a Safe Homes Program was implemented encouraging parents to sign a pledge regarding drinking and supervision at their homes. A similar program is under consideration by the CCHS parents group.

'Not my kid'

Parents too often assume they don't need to check up on a "good kid." But Dulong points out, "Over the course of years I have suspended many students for alcohol or drug abuse. I remember only two parents for whom it wasn't a surprise. Parents always believe it's other kids, not their own." He adds, "Usually these are really good kids, not troublemakers. They're great kids with caring parents, but they make bad decisions."

Galvin echoes Dulong's point. "The bulk of these are good kids that make bad choices. But we need to address the situation before it leads to a serious consequence like a drunk-driving accident." He adds, "Kids aren't perfect and they will make mistakes. But let them know there will be repercussions. Use their mistake as a jumping-off point to head down the right road. Parents that try to soft-soap this are sending the wrong message."

Communicate

Galvin believes the media is the major influence on teen attitudes toward alcohol and drugs. "Kids want to fit in and be part of the group. Unfortunately, they are convinced alcohol has to be part of the scene." He notes many teen movies promote the idea that cool kids party with alcohol and drugs (as an example, see ads for the movie National Lampoon's Van Wilder, now showing in local theaters).

He advises parents to try to counter media influence. "Communicate. Talk about alcohol. Whether you resolve differences or not, talking is important. Let your kids know how you feel about drugs, alcohol, sex, and driving and what the repercussions can be."

The Carlisle Police counsel students about substance abuse through the D.A.R.E. program in the Carlisle School. Galvin notes "Some studies seem to show it's ineffective, but it's been wonderful for us. I hear good things from parents and school administration." He adds, "It's a way for kids to get to know the officers. They wave to us as they go through town; it breaks down a barrier and builds trust." He hopes that, as a result of his D.A.R.E. experience, a teen is more likely to call police when trouble arises.

Working together for a solution

The problem of teen drinking may seem intractable. It was a problem for our generation; it's a problem for our children's generation, and it'll undoubtedly still be a problem when our grandchildren are teenagers. But inroads can be made when parents, police, and school administration work together to ensure consequences are fairly and consistently applied.

Dulong points to the high school dance situation as one where connecting behavior to consequences has worked. "People involved over the years tell me the dances are going more smoothly and the kids are more cooperative. I think taking (the dances) away for a while was a good thing ­ the kids realized they must earn them back."

Galvin asks parents to cooperate with police, even if that means accepting suspensions. "It's okay to advocate for your kid if [he's] wrongly charged," he says, but parents shouldn't go overboard and try to wheedle out of fair consequences. In his experience, "Parents that support the law and social mores have fewer issues with their kids. I don't hear from them again."

Galvin notes his experience parenting his own teens "helps me see issues from both sides. I know it's not easy being a parent." His advice is, "Follow-up, be diligent. There are opportunities for missteps everywhere. But just do the best you can."

"An empty house is a magnet" for substance abuse . . . there is a subculture that, each weekend, seeks out an empty house (where parents aren't home), then spreads the word." (Dulong)

"I have spoken to some [parents] who will say 'drinking is part of growing up' and don't feel strongly against it. . . . Those parents are looking for trouble. If they're caught providing or condoning, there are laws against this, and we will pursue it.. (Galvin)

Parents always believe it's other kids, not their own. Usually these are really good kids, not troublemakers. They're great kids with caring parents, but they make bad decisions." (Dulong)

"It's okay to advocate for your kid if wrongly charged," he says, but parents shouldn't go overboard and try to wheedle out of fair consequences. In his experience, (Galvin)


2002 The Carlisle Mosquito