By AUBRIE GEORGE | The Marlton Telegram
Prom and graduation are among the most exciting and memorable of times for high school students, but this time of year is also a dangerous time.
Joe Conlin, Coordinator of Burlington County Coalition for Healthy Communities, a program of Burlington County Prevent Plus, said alcohol awareness month begins in April and a risk of increased underage drinking incidents spreads into the remainder of the school year.
“There is an increase in opportunity for kids to drink because they’re attending these functions,” Conlin said.
At a town hall meeting for underage drinking that was held in Marlton last month, Conlin said the average age that children in Burlington County children report consumption of alcohol is 10 to 11-years-old. The national average is 15 to 16-years old.
“That’s not a first sip, that’s actual alcohol use,” Conlin said.
For that reason, among other unsettling statistics, Conlin and members of the community are coming together to make teens and parents more aware of the risks that this time of year presents as well as ways that underage drinking incidents may be prevented.
To raise awareness countywide, Prevention Plus holds a poster contest for elementary school students and a public service announcement for high school students. They hold programs with Burlignton County College, such as letting students wear “fatal vision goggles”, which show them what it’s like to drive while impaired. In addition, Conlin visits local high schools for pre-prom and pre-graduation meetings where parents are required to attend to make sure that literature about prevention and the importance of parent involvement gets out.
“It’s important that parents are aware of what their kids are doing. We can go on Facebook and see pictures of kids underage who are drinking at parties or in their house in the basement with friends and they post them. I find it kind of amazing that parents don’t find out what their kids are doing,” Conlin said. “We try to educate parents on what the current trends are.”
Conlin was one of several speakers at the town hall meeting, which included representatives from local law enforcement, the Lenape Regional High School District, and key community groups. Those groups came together to discuss the challenges of keeping students safe as well as different resources available to educate students and parents about drug and alcohol awareness.
Cpt. Frank Locantore spoke about various programs the police department implements to prevent incidents and spread awareness, including a program that targets citizens over 21 who purchase alcohol for younger kids. He also said parents should be aware that incidents occur when they go way, leaving children home alone who may invite a few friends over.
“All it takes is for one of those kids to get on the phone and word spreads like wildfire,” he said. “We need to focus our educational efforts on what happens when we go away, even with good kids.”
Lynne Scheiter, executive director of the Rap Room in Evesham, which provides parent-to-parent guidance and education for parents and children struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, spoke about early intervention as key in preventing future problems with substance abuse.
Scheiter shared an experience she had with her son, who suffered from substance abuse problems because he started drinking early.
According to the American Medical Association, studies show that children who begin drinking alcohol before the age of 15 ate 5 to 7 times more likely than those who start after age 21 to develop alcohol problems.
“This hits every family regardless of how much you care and how much you know,” Scheiter said.
Christopher Heilig, Assessment, Accountability and Planning Coordinator for the LRHSD, spoke about efforts taken on by the district as well as by the Community Alliance for Teen Safety (CATS), which is a partnership between the school district and other entities throughout the district’s communities that work to enhance safety for students.
Heilig spoke about efforts undertaken by the group to enhance awareness and safety for students, including the implementation of driving simulators, which were donated by two district families who experienced tragedy when family members were killed behind the wheel.
The simulators, made by Virtual Driver interactive, allow students to sit in the drivers seat with a seatbelt, wheel, gas and breaks as well as three monitors in front of them. Students are taken through a virtual training program, which simulates dangerous driving situations and weather conditions, without actually putting the student driver in harms way. The program adds guides and pointers to the student driver’s environment that help point out dangers or recommended driving positions, according to the company’s Web site.
Other programs throughout the district aimed at the deterrence of underage drinking include peer education programs as well as project graduation for each school, which provides a safe, fun activity for students after high school graduation ceremonies.
Heilig said the district is constantly working with members of the community to keep students safe from underage drinking.
“Really, in the end, I don’t think there is one answer to solving this,” Heilig said “Coming together and working together that’s going to be the best thing.”