Rethinking Drinking

Despite the prevalence of alcohol use in society, most communities keep discussions of it at arm's length. Wellesley, Mass., however, has decided that the time is past for bumbling around the issue like seventh-graders at their first dance.

Several well-publicized incidents of underage drinking about a year ago were a rude wake-up call to this affluent town in the western suburbs of Boston.

The result has been a townwide dialogue and action program called It Takes a Town: Alcohol and Our Community.

People realized the urgency of addressing the situation after ambulances were called to the annual Cotillion, a formal holiday dance, to deal with badly inebriated students. In a separate incident at about the same time, a teen totalled his car while driving under the influence.

The wreckage was displayed in front of the police department.

"A lot of times, the attitude of the parents toward

drinking is just like the kids'," says Police Chief Terrence Cunningham.

Older siblings, friends, and parents - along with untended home liquor supplies - are some of the sources of alcohol for minors, even in a "dry" town such as Wellesley.

Parents are important influences in a young person's life, but the community has a role to play, too, says Michael Furstenberg, who counsels troubled teens for the Human Relations Service.

"As kids get older, their range of activity and sphere of interest widens, so it really does require that other adults in a community take a measure of responsibility for them," says Dr. Furstenberg, who is director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program in Wellesley.

Lisa Stone, who heads It Takes a Town for the Board of Health, doesn't see underage drinking in Wellesley as an epidemic.

"The number of youths involved has not significantly changed," she says. "What led up to the study-circle program was an increase in the intensity of alcohol use that was very alarming. In [December] 1999, six kids were in life-threatening situations as the result of drinking."

Binge drinking occurs across the country, but Mrs. Stone, a mother of three, wasn't about to accept it as inevitable.

Stone learned about study circles while pursuing a master's degree at the Harvard School of Public Health. This approach to community activism brings together diverse groups of community members to discuss and act on social and political issues. The concept is promoted by the Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret, Conn.

"There's a fair amount of subtle bullying that can occur among adults on these kinds of issues," says Laura Colburn, a study-circle participant. The Wellesley discussions, she found, were a "safe process," in which people aren't "hung out to dry in front of the community."

Another mother in a study circle this reporter observed said it was helpful to learn about issues in a non-inflammatory way. "We've talked about things I'd dearly like to talk to my daughters about," she said at the final of four Sunday-afternoon discussions.

Over the weeks, the group, which consisted of about half students and half adults, discussed the police department's zero-tolerance policy (see interview on page 16), how drinking changes the way people treat others, and the reasons teens drink.

Altogether, 96 people, from age 15 to 88, participated. A new round of study circles, meant to accommodate growing interest in the concept, will be offered soon.

One of the frustrations that existed before the study circles, Stone says, was the tendency for most discussions to get hung up on the illegality of underage drinking, ignoring the complexities of the social, emotional, and mental-health considerations.

"For a lot of parents," she explains, "there was no way to really discuss it because the schools can't advocate for anything other than zero tolerance, nor can the police department. That's why the Board of Health took the [lead]. We [could] approach this from a public-health standpoint.

"I think families should make their individual choices [to drink or not drink], but everybody basically has the same goal: Everybody wants their child to survive adolescence and to grow into a healthy, productive adult. We all agree on that."

What this means is an emphasis on harm reduction, rather than prohibition. This puts the legal-moral issue aside to focus on responsibility, safety, and mutual care, given the fact that many teens drink, despite what the law permits.

"It's the last things kids are allowed to do," Furstenberg says, citing younger age requirements for voting, driving, and serving in the military. Drinking, as a result, is held to be the mark of adulthood.

"Given the pressures of and [tacit] encouragement of society, there are kids who will choose to drink earlier," he says. "They need to do it in a way that is going to be less problematic." This means more education, inside and outside the home, and initiatives to encourage youths to act responsibly.

Stone calls the high school years "very imperfect years for parents and kids. They're very humbling. We learn that the power of our message gets diluted, and what actually happens is less determined by us and what we wish would happen and more determined by other factors."

Mrs. Colburn, like many in the study circles, wants to see the town become more proactive in addressing the needs of teens. Progress is being made, even if slowly. She, for example, is a member of a seven-member Youth Commission established 2-1/2 years ago.

Before that, Stone says, there was nothing in town government that provided teen advocacy and few places for teens to go for fun.

"There's nothing to do in Wellesley," teens told Krista Rosseland-Swanson when she became the new youth services director, filling a post that was vacant for nearly a decade. There's no bowling alley, public recreation center, or movie theater, and many school buildings with good teen potential have long since been converted to condominiums in this town where the median house price is $475,000.

"I think adults could easily put things together for teenagers, but the kids need to be a part of it so they feel good about it," says Ms. Rosseland-Swanson.

Clearly the sociability/alcohol connection is well established among adults. Young people can't help but notice. Still, not all teens view alcohol as necessary for fun, Rosseland-Swanson says, and many of them in the study circles enthusiastically endorsed creating a coffeehouse of some kind.

She says many kids today are "booked solid" with activities, which only heightens the need for informal social opportunities.

"A lot of parents don't want their kids hanging out, they think it's unproductive, but that's the nature of the age group. Teens learn a lot about life just by talking. I don't think you can take that part away, but you want to make it safe," she says.

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