Newtown Uses The Week To Address Underage Drinking

Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn


From left, Newtown High School senior Alexa Vacaro of NO SUDS, Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking President Gary Najarian, Representative Deborah Lee Hovey, and Newtown’s First Selectman Herb Rosenthal. – Bee Photo, Lytwyn


Last May 9 through May 15 marked Newtown’s inaugural Stop Underage Drinking Week, co-sponsored by the Prevention Council’s Newtown Organization to Stop Underage Drinking (NO SUDS) and Newtown Youth Services.

This year’s theme was, “You Can Choose Not to Use.”

“There is definitely a stereotype that kids in high school drink a lot of [alcohol],” noted Newtown High School senior Alexa Vacaro, youth coordinator for the NO SUDS youth group.

In truth, according to Nina Allred of Newtown Youth Services, nationwide, 60 percent of students ages 12 through 17 have never had an alcoholic beverage.

The week began with a forum co-sponsored by Parent Organization entitled “But It’s Only Beer…Everything You Need to Know About Alcohol and the Law.”

Alexa and Kelli Gardner, also a NO SUDS member, represented the student perspective during the double-paneled discussion featuring First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, Newtown Police Sgt Robert Tvardzik and Chief Michael Kehoe, and town representatives Deborah Lee Hovey and Julia Wasserman.

Gary Najarian, president of the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, facilitated the discussion.

After an introduction by Ms Allred, Mr Rosenthal officially proclaimed the week of May 9-16 as “Stop Under Drinking Week in Newtown.”

During his proclamation, Mr Rosenthal noted alcohol as being Connecticut youth’s top “drug of choice.”

His proclamation referred to several statistics, including the fact that that 55 percent of Connecticut’s binge drinkers are under the age of 21; further, adolescents can become addicted to alcohol much more quickly than adults.

He also referred to findings that two-third of teen drinking occurs at house parties, prompting a town ordinance “allowing the police to address the problem of underage drinking on private property and supporting the silent majority of adults in Connecticut who are setting firm rules for their teenagers not to use alcohol.”

Mr Najarian asked the first panel, consisting of Alexa, Ms Hovey and Mr Rosenthal, to think about what youth needed to hear from peers and parents.

Alexa characterized alcohol as a “gateway drug” with serious legal and health-related consequences for underage drinkers.

She said it was important for parents to be aware of their children’s activities and remain open and honest with them.

Mr Najarian said that children are half as likely to abuse illegal substances if their parents discuss the issue with them.

Ms Hovey reflected on “the impact of choices,” particularly growing up during the socially liberal 1970s. “I have heard lots of parents of my generation say, ‘They’re going to drink anyway, so why not let them drink at home and take the keys away?’ I think these mixed signals send the wrong message.”

On the positive side, she praised the school district’s “zero tolerance” substance use policy. “I think that sends the appropriate message to students that schools will take this issue seriously,” she said.

Mr Rosenthal discussed “wrestling with the issues” as a parent to his four now-grown children. He noted the problem of substance abuse, particularly in Connecticut, at all ages.

“It’s important that parents don’t look the other way,” he said. It was also important, he said, for parents to lead by example.

“While other cultures in Europe may respond differently to alcohol issues,” he said, “We have to remember that there is simply a different culture here in America.”

New England and Connecticut have significantly higher-than-the-national-average rates of substance abuse, according to Mr Najarian.

Mr Najarian asked the panel how they would respond to “common myths” surrounding underage substance abuse.

Alexa noted the easy accessibility of alcohol, as well as the statistically proven fact that the younger the drinker starts, the more likely he or she is to become addicted.

Ms Hovey expressed concern about the lowered inhibitions alcohol causes. “The effect can make the user take additional drugs,” she said. Violence, sexual promiscuity, and sexual assault were also concerns, she said.

Mr Rosenthal echoed Ms Hovey’s sentiments. He reflected on the time in the early 1970s when the Connecticut drinking age was lowered to 18. The number of accidents and criminal behavior increased significantly during that time, he said. The change only lasted until the early 1980s, when it was changed back to age 21.

Ironically, the number of underage drinkers has remained somewhat steady over the years, according to Mr Najarian, despite the shift in drinking ages. He also talked about the alcohol industry’s encouragement to “drink responsibly.”

The level of American alcohol consumption, he said, is actually very concentrated into a small percentage of heavy drinkers – who rarely act responsibly.

During the second panel, comprised of NO SUDS member Kelli Gardner, Mrs Wasserman, Sgt Tvardzik, and Chief Kehoe, Mr Najarian asked how alcohol consumption could be reduced, as well as whether it was “really a problem” in Newtown.

Sgt Tvardzik said that drinking had long been a problem in Newtown, citing influences including peer pressure, easier access, and adult maturation as all contributing factors.

Mr Najarian remarked on Newtown’s 2002 youth survey on substance abuse, in which more than half of Newtown High School students commented that drinking was “not at all wrong” or “just a little bit wrong.”

“What kind of message are we as parents sending to our children?” he asked.

Kelli concurred with research stating that the majority of underage drinking occurs at house parties. Often, she said, parents are not home when the parties occur.

According to Chief Kehoe, there have been incidences of students crashing a peer’s home when they know that the peer’s parents or guardians are out of town.

“It’s important for parents to know if there will be supervision at these parties,” said Chief Kehoe, “and further, follow up when the party is taking place.”

Sgt Tvardzik spoke briefly about the easy accessibility of fake IDs from the Internet. Students also may try to purchase alcohol by using an older friend’s ID.

Sgt Tvardzik said the police department has been working steadily with liquor shop owners to be able to recognize the difference between counterfeit and legitimate IDs.

“And there are multiple [criminal] penalties for assuming someone’s identification or using counterfeit IDs, too,” said Mrs Wasserman.

Chief Kehoe confirmed that misrepresenting one’s identification was a misdemeanor while falsely impersonating someone else was a felony. In addition, a “third-party transaction,” in which underage drinkers persuade an older person to buy alcohol for them, is a felony for the third-party.

There is an anonymous tip line (270-8888) that citizens can call to report such suspected activity.

In addition to the forum, NO SUDS co-sponsored Newtown High School’s annual health fair on May 11. Reed Intermediate School fifth and sixth graders also had the opportunity to write to high school students discouraging them from abusing illegal substances.

Despite the widespread publicity, advertising, and support from leading community organizations, only about 40 to 50 people attended the forum.

Among the attendees was Zachary Iannazzo, a Newtown High School student.

“I thought the information was pretty solid,” he said. “I wish I had seen more of my peers here. It is an important message.”

Anthony Tozzi of Newtown Youth Services kept the attitude upbeat. “Programs like this are important to enlighten the community, to bring our community together as a whole,” he said.

For more information on the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, visit www.drugsdontwork.org. For more information on NO SUDS, contact Newtown Youth Services at 270-4335 or email nosuds123@sbcglobal.net.

The forum was taped by Charter Community TV; for more information visit www.communityvision21.com or call (203) 304-4050.

Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company

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