Schreiber student Amy McDonald's comment, "Drinking and drugs are extremely prevalent in the high school," set the serious tone of the PW School District's Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community Task Force's powerful public program on Monday evening, April 23. The program, entitled "The Power of Parents" was designed to alert the community to the startling findings of a recent survey of drug and alcohol use among PW 6-12 graders, as well as other dangerous behaviors. But the program went well beyond just sharing the extent of the problem; the evening offered practical tips, and supportive insights from a knowledgeable and dynamic panel of parents, mental health professionals, educators, and other experts. Judging from the overwhelming turnout ( it was standing-room only in the Weber auditorium), the concern about today's young people is exceedingly high, and from the audience questions asked, it was clear that parents and others are seeking guidance and assistance. They received a wealth of it, from this program of tremendous value; comments like "fabulous" and "terrific" were heard as attendees were exiting.
After a warm welcome from Superintendent Dr. Albert Inserra, Cheryl Clifton, the chairwoman of the Task Force, reviewed the results of the PRIDE survey. PRIDE, Inc., is a national drug prevention organization; they developed the questionnaire used in Port Washington. After surveying more than 1700 local students from grades 6 to 12, some key findings were:
* 19.1% of middle school students reported drinking beer, 10% drank liquor
* 70.9% of high school students drank beer in the past year; 60% reported liquor use, 48% drank wine coolers.
* A relatively small percentage of students reported using alcohol during school hours. The times of greatest use are weekends, followed by week nights.
* 2.5% of middle school students and 32.1% of high school students reported using marijuana in the last year. By far, the periods of greatest use are weekends, followed by weeknights, and to a smaller degree, before school.
* 17.5% of h.s. students who used marijuana in the last year also used cocaine.
* 6.4% of h.s. students have used hallucinogenic drugs in the last year
* 24.7% of students reported being afraid that another student would hurt them
* 20.7% reported getting hurt
* Close to 5% reported thinking a lot or often about suicide
* Nearly 6% reported taking part in gang activity
* 27 students reported carrying a gun to school
The study also found that 41.6% of high school students and 5.9% of middle schoolers reported smoking cigarettes within the past year.
Parents, several speakers pointed out, do believe alcohol and drug use is a big problem in the community, but often believe it must be other children, not their own.
Keynote Speaker Advises Parents to be Solid Role Models
"Children don't listen to their parents; they watch them," said keynote speaker Susan Cheever. A highly regarded writer and Newsday columnist, Ms. Cheever presented her thoughts about parenting and read excerpts from her book, As Good as I Could Be. No longer does Ms. Cheever drink alcohol nor does she keep it in her home, as she contends children learn by example. She also advises parents to spend time listening to teens. One audience member asked how she would answer questions from her children about her own behavior as a teen. Though she doesn't think "lying to my kids is a good idea," Ms. Cheever said she does not provide her kids with details of her drinking. Her warmth, truthfulness, and thoughtful wisdom were well-received by audience members.
Experts Provide Very Useful Advice, and Support, for Parents
A sensational evening continued with a panel offering key ideas for guiding teenagers. It is key to understand that the greatest influence on kids is their friends' activities. "They want to do what their friends are doing," student Amy McDonald explained, and differentiated it from peer pressure. "You can refuse [ to partake in drinking or using drugs], but if you don't join in, it's boring," she said, though this is not her own behavioral pattern. She also read shocking comments from other students, relating the regularity of their drinking to excess, vomiting, and even lapses into unconsciousness. "This is common," she maintained.
For psychiatric social worker and parent Nomi Rinke, the decision of some parents to allow their child to drink at home, believing that they can supervise and it will be safer, is not the answer. "If you tell them they can drink at home with you, they'll drink in other places," she said. "The kids need us to be parents," she emphasized. "They aren't adults; they don't always know how to make smart choices." If children feel they cannot refuse a drink at a party, she advises parents to tell teens it is acceptable to hold a can of beer, but not drink it. Kids can also tell a white lie, such as not being able to drink alcohol because of the medication they are taking. She advises staying in touch with your children when they are out, and having a pre-arranged password which signals they want a ride home. Kids can also escape these situations by "blaming" their parents, saying they demand they go home immediately.
Calling parenting "a humbling experience -- and a marathon," social worker Laurie Segal, the founder of a program for families called F.A.C.E.I.T., had a number of tips to offer parents, like:
* Trust your instincts, and be around
* Don't be intimidated by your kids
* Help provide safe environments for kids to hang out
* Perceive of your childen as good, in general, but capable of getting into bad situations
* Today's middle school is the equivalent of the parents' high school life.
* No parents, no party. Call to be sure the party is supervised.
Questions and Answers
In response to a question about the district's rules on bullying, Sousa Elementary School principal Dr. Richard Barry spoke of the concerted efforts of all the schools to to "engender in students a caring for one another,...as important as academics." Anti-bullying programs are in place in many of the district's schools; an extensive training program was just held for educational assistance as well. "We are striving to develop a zero tolerance for bullying, in words and behavior," he stated. Echoing earlier remarks, Dr. John Imhoff, a North Shore University Hospital psychologist, mentioned that "there is a misconception that families are democracies. Parents are in charge of their families." As for busy working familes, parents must "find the time," to talk to their kids, said PWSD social worker Michele Weiden. Jerry Otero-Davis, a Port Counseling substance abuse specialist, commented that "the greatest preventive factor is valued membership in a family." For Daytop professional Caroline Sullivan, learning to deal with feelings is crucial to stop teens from turning to drugs or alcohol. And Toughlove representative Phyllis Abelson emphasized that parents are not in this alone. There are places to turn. Many resources were listed on the handout distributed at the meeting; those interested can also check the District's website (www.PortNet.K12.ny.us/Lifelines/).
The PW school district is also examining current practices and initiating new in-school programs. The Superintendent mentioned that they are studying its suspension policy, following recent controversy over student drinking before a high school event. "Initiation rituals" surrounding sports teams and student alcohol use is also being examined, and things are improving, reported Cheryl Clifton. Sign-up sheets for parent networking workshops were also distributed by the Counseling Department.
Prior to the presentations, the hallways of Weber were lined with resource representatives, tables of materials, and lots of interested people. Organizations like Port Counseling, the Port Police, F.A.C.E.I.T., and North Shore Child and Family Guidance helped share and distribute a wealth of information.
By the program's conclusion, audience members felt armed with information, support, and direction, judging from their comments. For those who attended, it was an invaluable session that directly and honestly addressed problems facing the community. And for those unable to attend, one can only hope that this is just the first of many more such stellar PW School District programs on this serious subject.