A town strives to keep its young from the brink of alcohol and drug abuse

FRIDAY night in Wilton is like Friday night in thousands of American towns. The high school football team has a home game. Parent ``boosters'' occupy the center of the grandstand. They stay glued to the game, whooping as the ``Warrior'' halfbacks pound the opposing line. On the extremes of the bleachers are the kids -- anything but glued. They surge, singly and in groups, in and out of the stands. Dozens congregate in the shadows near the food booths; other dozens are in the parking lots, talking, laughing, and, according to observers, frequently drinking.

The ``openness'' of drinking at football games is one thing that's ``waking people up'' here, according to Sue Harley, chairman of the Wilton Youth Action Committee and mother of two teen-aged children. Her town, like thousands of others across the United States, has a problem with teen-age alcohol and drug abuse.

How is this community of 16,610 people, a fairly typical if affluent suburb, responding to President Reagan's call for ``a war on drugs,'' a call that's being echoed by election-bound politicians in every region? In New York City, a little over an hour's commute away, the battle against pushers and addiction is being waged on the streets. In Wilton and towns like it, drug use and alcohol abuse exist, but not right on the woodsy, immaculately-maintained surface of things.

``In communities like ours it's a hidden problem because it's in the homes -- a lot of it is anyway,'' says Joyce McConnell, head of the town's Public Health Nursing Association. The nurses on her staff work in Wilton's schools and are ``very aware of kids who are having problems,'' she says. Still, she sees ``continuous denial'' -- assertions that ``it won't happen to my kid.''

In fact ``a lot of parents just don't know,'' says one teen-ager who recently transferred from Wilton High to a private school. ``It's kept real quiet; there's a good system going, and kids protect each other,'' he says. If anything, he adds, drug use seems to be growing locally. And drinking is simply a major recreation on weekends.

Mrs. Harley and a number of other Wilton parents are committed to breaking through the barriers of denial and taking part in the offensive against drugs.

The local schools, as well as Wilton Youth Action, have sponsored drug education programs, featuring well-known anti-drug speakers. There's a ``safe homes'' program, which asks parents to pledge that drinking or drug use by school-age guests won't be tolerated in their homes, and a ``safe rides'' program staffed by teen-agers themselves.

And a large number of parents are participating in Wilton Youth Action's four-year-old ``class project.'' Basically, the parents of each high school graduating class form an association, starting when their children are in seventh grade. They sponsor educational sessions aimed at alcohol and drug abuse prevention, as well as regular social outings, such as picnics for parents and kids. The idea is to build community and foster communication -- not easy tasks in a highly mobile, corporate town like Wilton, where a family's average stay is about three years.

Unchaperoned teen parties, at which drinking and drug use are common, trouble Wilton and neighboring towns. But when parents have gotten to know each other, and have word of a party at someone's house, they ``can call up people and feel very comfortable about asking about it,'' says Betsy Pettit. She and her husband, Steve, are active in the ``class project'' for 1988, the year their daughter graduates.

``The kids know each other already. What we're trying to do is get the families to know each other, too,'' explains Don Agostin, a dentist who's already been through one class project with an older son and is beginning another with a youngster now in junior high. By getting involved you make a statement, he says. ``I think my kids should know where I stand, and it doesn't hurt if they know other parents are like that, too.''

``The greatest disappointment in the project, says Steve Pettit, voicing a concern echoed by many here, is ``that people who really seem to need it don't get involved.''

Parents' refusal to admit their childrens' drug or alcohol use is all too familiar to Carl H. Sandizell, whose daughter is currently undergoing drug rehabilitation in Massachusetts. ``When our daughter became addicted, we as parents denied it more and more,'' he recalls. Later, he says, after rehabilitation had begun to work a real change of attitude, his daughter asked him to try to help some of her ``druggie'' friends in Wilton. ``I personally called some of the mothers of those kids and there was total denial,'' says Mr. Sandizell. It's all part of the ``family disease'' of drug abuse, in his view.

Another parent, who asked that her name not be used, blames her child's problems to a large degree on the competitiveness and code of success Wilton shares with most of upper-class, suburban America. Her son had trouble finding a niche, socially or academically, when he entered high school and began drifting towards apathy and addiction.

``There are many wonderful things about this community, but when it comes to ... anything that could suggest you're not a successful person, that's a real problem to anyone who lives here,'' she says.

The aimlessness that nudged this woman's son towards drugs is something Joy Shoop, an outreach counselor with the Alcoholism Council of Mid-Fairfield County, confronts frequently. She's assigned to Wilton High School, an imposing structure of buff-colored concrete and smoked glass that could double for a corporate headquarters.

Many of the parents here are ``IBMers,'' she says, and youngsters are often ``left alone from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.'' A lot of these kids ``feel like they don't have any boundaries,'' and a lot of them complain ``that the town is boring,'' says Ms. Shoop. She observes that the abuse isn't limited to the so-called ``out'' crowd at school, either. ``I find it's hitting all groups -- athletes, misfits, high achievers.''

``Everyone wants to try it once,'' says the boy quoted earlier, and some get hooked. ``I know a lot of burned-out people.'' He adds that he's seen drugs sold on the high school campus and knows that kids regularly drink in the parking lot. Money is part of the problem, too, he says, explaining that some kids can get money -- lots of it -- any time they want and that much of it goes to alcohol and drugs.

One key to countering the lure of drug use is reaching kids at a younger age, according to Daughn Carleton, another parent involved in Wilton Youth Action. Ed Kulhawik, youth officer with the Wilton Police Department, tries to do just that. He visits elementary and junior high classrooms and shares a pointers on how to deal with peer pressure, ``how to say `no' to drugs and alcohol.''

The best approach with kids, in his view, is ``an honest one, telling them what their rights are and what the repercussions of their actions might be.'' You're trying to build their egos, their self esteem, he says. ``The old scare tactics,'' which focus just on the horrors of drug use, often don't work, he adds. If exaggeration is used, ``they read through it.''

Mr. Kulhawik, Mrs. Carleton, and others assert that while cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs are far from unknown in this suburb, alcohol abuse is the most ingrained problem. Wilton itself is a ``dry'' town; alcoholic beverages can't legally be sold here. But it's an easy matter for teen-agers to skip over to neighboring Norwalk or Georgetown for liquor or beer. And though it's illegal, merchants have ``little hesitancy'' about selling to the minors, says Carleton.

Another woman, who also wanted her name withheld, terms it ``incredible'' that local school officials, police, and parents don't take stronger action against the drinking problem. Her own son, she admits, became caught up in the drinking and partying swirl -- once even hosting a drinking party at home when his parents were away. ``We just don't leave the house anymore,'' she says. But the problem, she adds, is ``that [there] are kids who have parties all the time, and their parents don't seem to mind.''

For this community, or any other, it's a steep climb toward real control over teen drinking and drug use. ``I don't know what the answer is,'' says one mother. ``Is one beer OK?'' she asks, hinting that she's not at all sure it is anymore.

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