Over the last few months, as a larger community we have been traumatized by a series of tragic deaths due to drugs, violence and alcohol misuse. The greater majority of these tragedies have occurred among young people with good reputations, from good families within positive school communities. Thus, the myth that our drug and alcohol problem is escalating among dysfunctional and marginal teenagers is false.
The drug, alcohol and violence epidemic has no particular face or profile. It is infecting communities everywhere. Unfortunately, many reading this column are in denial of the seriousness of this social infection. There is not a high school in Suffolk County that will not have serious incidents around illegal drug and alcohol use before graduation.
What is further disturbing is that there is an attitude around illegal drug and alcohol use that supports a distorted view that this social behavior is just a rite of passage from teenagehood to adulthood. Many parents express frustration that they cannot prevent their underage teenagers from drinking. So, they take the position that as long as they protect them from drinking and driving, it is okay!
There are parents among us that see nothing wrong with buying alcohol for a high school party. There are parents who go away on weekends and leave their high school students home alone, knowing full well that they will have parties where underage drinking will take place.
Recently, I had an informal conversation with a number of high school seniors and first year college students. I asked them about teenage drinking and recreational drug use. Their responses only confirmed what I believed. They said it is more rampant than their parents know and more prevalent in their school than their school administrators want to believe. They confirmed that their generation has become much more sophisticated in obtaining false identification and accessing and purchasing illegal drugs and alcohol.
What was further troubling was that this group of students also felt that the larger community was overreacting to their drug and alcohol use. Many interviewed were good students and former varsity athletes. They saw nothing wrong with reasonable drug or alcohol use, as long as they were good students and were taking care of business at home, on the ball field and in the workplace. Many of them expressed that their social choices were personal and no one else's concern.
When I pointed out that their social choices were in direct defiance of the law, they just shrugged it off. I asked them to explain. One articulate college student said, "Law enforcement rarely holds teenagers accountable for their illegal alcohol use. The most that happened to me and my friends during high school was that a cop would confiscate our beer and tell us to scatter - end of story!"
It does seem that we perpetuate an attitude of invincibility. The political bureaucracy continuously celebrates new laws that have been passed, but oftentimes are useless because they are unenforceable or the system chooses random enforcement.
Every high school community in Suffolk County has a student code of conduct. As a parent, have you seen the student code of conduct? Do you know what the major consequences are for social noncompliance? Probably, most importantly, is the code of conduct operational in your school community? In other words, do the students know what the rules are and what the consequences are for breaking the rules?
If the truth be told, most students in high school have probably never read the student code of conduct. Equally true, most parents have probably never seen the document.
Some high schools attempt to enforce their student code of conduct, but unfortunately, too often the follow through is lacking. Students are not consistently held accountable and consequences are not followed up on. Another problem is that too many schools have groups of students that seem to be exempt from the rules and regulations that are applied to the larger student body.
The partnership that once existed between parents, school and community is dead. The lack of respect for school authority and teachers is epidemic and infectious. Too many parents are unwilling to support their school administration in the enforcement of the student code of conduct and in keeping school campuses safe.
In some school communities, parental interference and non-cooperation is at a crisis level. Our students see this and know how to use it to their own advantage. If a student is noncompliant to a school rule or regulation and the consequence is detention, then a parent should not write a letter of excuse or attempt to have his or her child exempt from the consequence. This kind of interference serves no one's interest. More often than not, it is potentially destructive for the student. He or she grows up believing that he or she can always get over on the system.
The summer is fast approaching. Every one of us who has a son or daughter of high school or college age needs to sit down and have a serious conversation around underage drinking and illegal drug use. As parents, we need to be clear and consistent in what our expectations are! We cannot be vague. We must have the courage to be clear and consistent as to what our family guidelines are. It will not be easy, but we must be willing to hold our children socially accountable. Their livelihood depends on it.
Last summer, TJ was getting ready to go away to college in New England. He was the middle son of a great family. As a high school student, he was above average academically. He was a varsity letter athlete and just an all around nice kid. He was so excited at the thought of going away to school.
His senior prom was a nightmare! After the prom, he and three other couples went out drinking. They lied to their parents and on the way back from a party, they were involved in a serious car accident. The driver was intoxicated. They did not hit another car but rather plowed down a picket fence and hit a small tree. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. They all swore that they learned their lesson that night.
Unfortunately, as senior summer unfolded, more parties were had. Every party had people drinking and smoking weed. TJ made sure he did not drink and drive, but he was still drinking. His parents confronted him. He responded by saying it's senior summer, I'll calm down when I go away to school.
In late August, there was a big beach party for all the seniors going away to college in the fall. Needless to say, there were countless kegs of beer and hard liquor at this party. TJ drank up a storm. He made arrangements to get a ride home. He was leaving the beach and made the mistake of trying to cross the beach highway instead of using the underpass. He didn't see the car coming because he was drunk. The car hit him at high speed and he died at the scene - another senseless loss of life that could have been avoided.
The Community Alliance of Northern Brookhaven in cooperation with the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council is sponsoring a free showing of the highly acclaimed HBO series "Addictions" - a powerful documentary addressing drug addiction and recovery in America. This free screening will take place on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 at 7:00pm at Theater Three in Port Jefferson. Dr. Stephen Dewey of Brookhaven Lab (who has done extensive work with brain imaging, which is an area covered in this series) will be the featured speaker.
Having seen this HBO series on "Addictions," I encourage you to make every effort to be there. As the summer is approaching, use this as an opportunity to hopefully begin a series of important conversations with your children about their social choices.