Quietly but resolvedly looking for answers

By , American news editor of The Christian Science Monitor

"You young people will have to tell us what to do. . . ." "We can't do it without your help. . . ." "We need you." Adults reaching out to youth -- for help. It took a crisis in the community to bring it about. Teenage deaths on the road. A rash of them over the past three years. Several in the last couple of months. All associated with drinking and driving.

Sudbury, a usually sleepy, mostly affluent suburban community -- 25 miles west of Boston -- rocked first with gloom and despair. Then indignation, resentment, and finger-pointing. Now, it is quietly, but resolvedly, looking for answers.

It has formed a Citizens Committee for a Fatality-free Sudbury. It has enlisted the support of the town fathers, the police, the schools, community agencies, churches, parents -- and, most important, its young people. Its goal is to find solutions. Its resolve is strong. "This isn't going to die tonight any more than anyone else is going to die on our highways" organizer Jim Healy told several hundred townspeople who gathered in the regional high school to lend their support to the cause.

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There are no simple solutions, they were told. There ism the danger that this local crusade might run out of steam as the memory of the recent tragedy begins to fade.

But the youths -- most of them students -- insisted that this must not happen.

"We must save each other's lives by banding together" says high school junior John Pitchel. "Everyone is touched in some way by the deaths. Why are we sitting back and taking this as it comes? Why can't we band together and be responsible for one another?"

Troy Fulton, a product of the schools here who has gone on to college, adds: "Maybe what we need to do is to instill in people the value of human life. You [young people as well as adults] have to have the guts to admit that you've had too much to drink."

And Debbie Heppenstall -- whose family was personally touched by the recent tragedy -- charges parents directly: "How many know where your children are going at night? Are you afraid to set standards, rules, limits?" She stresses the importance of young people and adults "opening up" to one another. Too often, she points out, when "kids look to one another for guidance and support, they often feed off negative ideas."

Negative ideas? All too familiar to most. Cruising around on the weekend or holiday evening -- with bottle in hand. Playing "chicken" on the back roads. Defacing property. Breaking the law.

Answers?Well, for starters, the young people insist: "Listen to your kids when they talk to you. Make them feel that you care. Treat them with basic dignity."

More specifically, give youths "alternative" activities to drinking parties. Perhaps a youth center. Beefed up sports programs. Dances, parties, shows -- chaperoned by adults but planned and supervised by peers. And even forums where all ages are free to express ideas and make suggestions that will strengthen the community.

Sudbury is just getting started. It is looking outside as well as inside for solutions. So far, several groups have started up, made up of both young people and adults to monitor school committee meetings; promote teen activities; organize neighborhood discussions; look into building a teen-age center; form a local highway safety committee; follow through with the idea of forming a car club or a dirt track.

Parents are being asked to volunteer to drive underage youngsters to and from parties in the community; to be available if there is an emergency need to rescue a youngster from a "tough" situation. They are being reminded that it is against the law to serve alcoholic beverages to youngsters even in their own homes. And they are urged to "set standards" -- for use of the car, going out after hours, and attendance at parties.

Sudbury Police Chief Nicholas Lombardi cites awesome national figures: 8,000 young killed, 40,000 injured in alcohol-related accidents last year; 20 percent of high school seniors get drunk once a week (according to one study); $45 billion cost for teen-age drinking in the US.

"The greatest responsibility lies with parents," he stresses. "Character building starts at home -- not with police or schools. . . . Don't be afraid to say 'no.'"

Sudbury stresses that the forum on fatalities and resulting monitoring and idea groups are "just a beginning."

The Rev. Shep Johnson, a local minister, warns of despair; bolsters hope:

"I've seen fright, frustration, almost terror among some high school students. Too soon, fright turns into fatalism.

"We need to find ways of stopping this terror. We are not helpless pawns in the hands of fate. We are intelligent, caring people."

Sudbury is reaching out for help -- by first reaching "in" to its own resources. Hopefully, answers will come from this inner resolve.

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