It's tough to be a teenager these days. The academic expectations are rigorous, and the social pressures can be daunting. And based on the turnout for a recent panel discussion on the problem of college-aged binge-drinking sponsored by the United Prevention Coalition, and the McLean High School PTSA, that feeling is shared by many.
Nearly 250 parents and students attended a program on "The Perils of the College Drinking Culture" on a rainy Wednesday night at McLean High School. The students and parents who attended represented many local high schools including McLean High School, Langley, Madison, Thomas Jefferson, W.T. Woodson, Madeira School, Washington-Lee, Yorktown and Wakefield. They came hoping to learn more about what to expect when it comes to alcohol on college campuses, and how to address such pressures.
The program featured a frank discussion led by five experts in the field, including some who had very personal reasons for sharing their knowledge.
Jeff Levy is the Virginia College Parents president, and the father of a student who died following drinking at a college party. He is a regular panelist for the Unified Prevention Coalition (UPC) program, which shared its message in five forums across the county last year. UPC is planning to repeat the program at least five to seven times this year.
Before the panelists addressed the audience, a 36-minute film titled HAZE was shown. HAZE describes the life and death of a young college student, Gordie Bailey, who died from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party. One of the messages of the film is that parents need to prepare their children for the social pressures connected to binge drinking. It is pervasive on college campuses.
Every year there are more than 1,700 deaths on college campuses from alcohol abuse, binge-drinking, and hazing. Parents prepare their children for many scenarious, but often do not think about preparing them to face the binge drinking culture on college campuses.
Casey Lingan, Chief Deputy for the Commonwealth of Fairfax County, spoke about the importance of calling for help if alcohol-poisoning is suspected. It is incumbent upon someone to make that call. In fact, it was clear from the movie that Gordie Bailey's life may have been saved if his fraternity brothers called for help.
One member of the audience asked how to identify a person suffering from alcohol poisoning. Panelist, Dr. William Hauda, emergency physician and medical director of the Forensic Assessment Consultation team, said that it is not always clear if someone is sleeping, or just passed out from intoxication, or if they actually have alcohol poisoning. But the best test is to wake the person up. If they cannot be awakened, they need medical attention.
One student in the audience asked whether someone making a call for help would face legal trouble for being at a party where there was underage drinking. Panelist Jeff Levy answered "in my experience, I know of no case where someone was subsequently prosecuted as a result of making the call." He also emphasized the importance of calling for help.
Dr. Hauda shared the results of recent research on binge-drinking. The results show that in a period of 30 days, 25 percent of 12th graders in Fairfax County had at least one binge-drinking episode. For college students, that percentage increases to 50 percent. "That scares me," Hauda said. "It doubles in college. There's a reason why drinking is a crime at that age. Your brain can't handle it at that age."
Fairfax County Police Chief, David Rohrer, told the audience during the program's introduction that too many people think of alcohol as a way to have fun. But it can lead to other consequences.
"As adults, and as a community, and a society we simply need to stop condoning and tolerating alcohol abuse," said Chief Rohrer. "We truly are facing, in my opinion and many others', just a national health and safety crisis. If nothing else I would ask one of the takeaways from tonight to be that when you go home, you have a dialogue between yourselves, as parents, and yourselves as young adults.
"Parents, I encourage you to discuss the risks and expectations. To the young adults here, I encourage you to engage in that discussion and to understand and accept that with that freedom of going away to college and all the fun that you're going to have and the new life you're going to have, also comes responsibility for your actions."
The movie's footage of drunken students was attention grabbing. And as panelist and Virginia Tech graduate student, Ryan Smith, pointed out, "You could literally make thousands of videos just like that from college campuses. What you saw in that movie is indicative of the typical college. It's not a one-time experience used in the movie to shock you, it is real life."
He told of a recent incident at Virginia Tech where a student climbed up on the roof of an apartment building, fell off, and died. Authorities learned later that people at the apartment party were cheering that person on to climb out on the roof.
Smith also noted that though the pressure to drink alcohol is great, students can make a decision not to drink at all. Smith, himself, did not drink alcohol throughout college, and admitted that at times it was tough, especially in the beginning. In fact, he said he would not have made the great friends that he did if he was a part of the drinking culture.
He encouraged students heading to college to consider joining clubs or organizations that interest them. "At Virginia Tech, there are 500 to 800 organizations and clubs. If you have an interest, you will find someone else who has an interest like that. See if you can surround yourself with good positive people."
Jeff Levy reminded the audience that a quarter of college students do not drink at all. "We forget that's a pretty sizeable proportion. Many that don't drink say that their parents were really tough on the issue. They made it clear that they expected their kids not to drink." Levy encouraged parents to not discount the influence they have on their children. "Seventy-two percent of students said that the largest influence on their behavior is their parents," he said.
Panelist, Captain Chuck Ferguson, commander of the Youth Services Division of the Fairfax County Police Department agreed. "I tell my children, I'm your parent. If it turns out that we're friends, that's great. But right now I'm your parent. I'm always going to be your parent." Ferguson has six daughters.
The Unified Prevention Coalition will post dates of future panel discussions on their website, as they are scheduled, on www.unifiedpreventioncoalition.org. The website also contains other valuable parent/teen information.