Yes, some Millburn High School students drink. Yes, there’s sometimes a fear of not fitting in if you don’t. And, yes, some of the teens drink too much on the weekends – either to alleviate the stress of school or just because they are bored.
But there is good news, too - a panel of juniors and seniors from the MHS chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions told an audience of parents at a student-led Town Hall meeting on Tuesday night that there are alternatives to alcohol and plenty of good excuses not to drink. They also said other teens will respect a student's decision not to drink.
"There's indirect pressure and it depends on the person's strength within themselves whether or not they will do it," said Rachel Ben-Menachem.
The students came together in a frank and honest way as a follow up to the MMAC Town Hall meeting on underage drinking that took place in April. It was an effort not only to give the student perspective but to help parents come up with better ways of communicating with their children and teens so that their kids will be less likely to drink or engage in other risky behaviors.
“While the MMAC meeting was really good, there weren't any teens involved and everyone was guessing about the kids’ perspective,” said Alyssa Weinstein, president of SADD at MHS. “So we thought it would be good to give people the teen perspective.”
While there were anecdotes at the MMAC meeting of parents letting their teens drink, the panelists on Tuesday night said teens mostly obtain alcohol often from older students, graduates or older siblings, but only rarely from parents, they said.
Binge drinking is a concern and it does go on, the students said, mostly because teens are drinking to get drunk not to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
The panelists also said the stress of a competitive high school like Millburn causes some people to go turn to alcohol.
“In our high school, we’re so focused on the end goal of going to college that we sometimes lose track of just enjoying being a teenager,” said Rebecca Bergman, a SADD member and athlete. “Maybe some people make up for that a little too extremely.”
One parent wondered whether students are at all fearful of what can happen when they binge drink and whether they are aware of how much alcohol is too much and how it will affect their bodies.
The teens said everyone has known someone or heard stories of someone who has ended up in the hospital with their stomachs pumped, or been arrested or hurt in some way, but teens don’t really consider the repercussions.
SADD advisor Jennifer Manis, a teacher at MHS, said parents need to keep in mind the “four i’s” when it comes to teens – “they think they are “infallible, invincible, immortal and infertile. They know these things happen but think it will never happen to them.”
The program also included a talk by a lawyer who has represented teens in criminal cases of underage drinking, a video showing a Dateline NBC segment about whether teens will get into a car with a driver they knew has been drinking and a workshop where teens and adults discussed how to handle difficult situations that arise such as a child calling you for a ride home from a party you didn’t know they were at.
Positive parent-teen relationships and communication are essential for guiding teens away from alcohol or drug use, as well as helping them make smart decisions when it comes to drinking and driving or getting into someone else’s car.
“You have to build that relationship so that when you ask questions, you get answers and your teens aren’t afraid to give you the answers,” Alyssa Weinstein said.
A 2010 MMAC student survey showed that:
- 22 percent of 9th graders and 60 percent of 12th graders used alcohol at least once in the prior month.
- 6 percent of 9th graders and 42 percent of 12th graders report having been drunk in the prior month.
In Millburn, the survey showed, the average age that kids first try alcohol is 14.3 years old and 14.8 years old is the average age that kids get drunk. Kids report drinking not only at parties, but also at night with friends (61 percent), at school events (28 percent), and even on their way to school (10 percent).
The students said both alcohol and marijuana are prevalent available, there are many students who choose not to partake of either.
"I have been to plenty of parties with a diverse set of people and have never felt pressure to drink or felt anyone is forced to drink," said panelist Danny Sonnabend.
SADD member Isabelle Amarger said she has talked with her older sister about the issue of underage drinking and said things have changed in just a few years. Students today designate a driver if they go to parties where there is alcohol, whereas that didn't happen much in the past.
Millburn Police Det. Edward de la Fuente, who often works in the schools, said on Wednesday that while he applauds students’ efforts to be safe and designate a driver, he said that being that driver is too heavy a burden for a teenager because they are dealing with friends who are not acting rationally and could become difficult.
The panelists are all members of SADD and committed to making responsible decisions when it comes to drinking and other risky behaviors.
One of the panelists suggested that one way for the community to combat underage drinking is offer more activities for teens in town – free movies or dances or other alternatives.
“A lot of students feel trapped, like there’s nothing to do but homework,” said Jaimie Potters, a junior and SADD member. “The town should offer alternate solutions so they don’t feel that the most fun option is to go to parties and drink.”