Law enforcement officials and prevention specialists spoke to a sparse audience of parents and teens in a town hall meeting in the performing arts wing of Ramona High School Thursday evening, April 15.
The meeting is part of a continuing effort to keep teens safe and to raise awareness about the growing problem of underage drinking.
Billed as a “community conversation,” the meeting was the beginning of a series of sessions following the “Every 15 minutes” program, which was held at the high school March 31 and April 1. The program was designed to bring to life the stark realities and life-changing effects of underage drinking.
Celeste Young, prevention specialist at the North Inland Community Prevention Program hosted the April 15 session.
“We are here tonight because underage drinking is a problem in San Diego County,” said Young. “We’ve lost five kids (in North County) since September to underage drinking and driving, and we want to keep this conversation going.”
Other speakers included Sgt. Kevin Barrett of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Officer Brian Pennings of the California Highway Patrol, Dave Lohman, assistant vice principal of Ramona High School, and Deb Pint from the San Diego County Friday Night Live Partnership.
Barrett relayed information about what he sees happening on the streets and the department’s zero tolerance approach as far as underage drinking is concerned, and how teens are obtaining alcohol.
“The easiest way for the youth ... to get alcohol is get it from either another adult or what we call ‘shoulder taps’ outside of businesses, where they contact an adult, tap them on the shoulder and ask if they can buy them beer,” Barrett said. “But probably the easiest way for anybody to get alcohol is just to go into the cabinet at their house. Parents have it all the time.”
Barrett explained that sheriffs deputies have responded to calls where juveniles are falling down drunk in the streets.
“And where did they get the alcohol?” he asked. “From mom and dad’s liquor cabinet.”
Before he left, Barrett warned the teens in the audience that that simple drink — the simple access to it — has a lot of impact on them.
“Now is the time for you guys to make that decision that you’ll step away from your friends and not participate,” he said. “And now is the time, also, for the parents to take a minute to know where your kids are, what they’re doing, and to take account of your alcohol.”
In 2009, three minors were arrested in Ramona for driving under the influence (DUI). So far this year, one minor has been arrested for DUI and three have been arrested for being drunk in public, said Barrett. He anticipates there probably will probably be more because of the zero tolerance policy.
All of the sheriffs here are working under the direction to make that arrest, because that is the first step in addressing the problem, explained Barrett.
“Zero tolerance is going to keep you and your friends alive,” he said.
After Barrett had finished speaking, frustrations were palpable amongst the parents in attendance. One concerned mother spoke out, saying how amazed she was that there was “so small a turnout, for so large a problem.”
Boredom, the lack of transportation services down the hill and the lack of entertainment choices for teens were the top reasons most parents cited as the cause for the growing trend of underage drinking.
“We have been talking with SANDAG,” Young said, referring to the San Diego Association of Governments. “And we are saying to them that our kids need to get down the hill so that they can have fun.
She also spoke about the ARRIBA Teen Center at 1710 Montecito Rd.
Parents in attendance wanted to know how to get more parents involved and raise awareness on the matter, telling Lohman that a big piece of the puzzle is educating the parents.
There are programs in place such as “Smart Start” and “Right Turn,” Lohman said, but they will also be working with the PTA to help increase awareness.
A copy of the “Every 15 minutes” program will be available for viewing soon on the high school Web site at ramonausd.net, said Lohman.
Pint addressed the consequences of Friday nights and weekends in terms of the number of deaths that occurr due to underage drinking.
“We have been funded specifically to support Ramona by the California Office of Traffic Safety,” Pint said. “Here is what we are going to do for the young people — take a core group of young people who are saying ‘that’s enough,’ and recruit those who want to do something about it, and we can help you to do something about it.”
Young people have the ability to join the community, she said.
“It’s about what the young kids can do,” said Pint. “...It’s about kids who care about other kids.”
The people who need to be here, aren’t here, but those who are here, are the ones who can start a movement, she added.
Young is contributing a weekly column titled “Prevention Works!” to the Ramona Sentinel in the hopes of providing more prevention advice and information to high school teens and their parents. The column started in last week’s Sentinel and will run until the school’s prom, scheduled for Saturday, May 22.