The event (7:30 p.m., Bedford Middle School cafeteria) opens with John Dodig. The Staples principal will describe the steps his high school has taken to reduce drinking before and during next weekend’s Homecoming football game.
The bulk of the meeting, though, involves an open discussion about kids and alcohol, in all areas of Westport life. (Students are strongly encouraged to attend.)
Attendees will break into small groups to discuss areas of interest. At the end of the evening, each group will summarize its conclusions for everyone.
If Tuesday is at all like previous forums, it should be an interesting evening.
It would be even more fascinating if someone steps up to the mic and asks questions like these:
The Homecoming game is scheduled for 10 a.m., in part to stop drinking beforehand. How many students plan to drink afterward? And how many parents know not only that their kids will drink then — but also exactly where?
How many parents had a cocktail or two after work — and before driving to Tuesday’s meeting — “just to unwind.”
How many students are willing to talk openly about their drinking habits — the “secret lives” few Westport adults are privy to?
How many parents actually want to hear about those secret lives from their own kids?
If we are to have a true “community conversation,” those are important questions to ask.
An added attraction: Califano — founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and a former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare — is a Westport resident.
The national expert on adolescent drug and alcohol use will be speaking to a hometown audience, about a national — and yet very local — issue.
He hopes his neighbors will listen.
“Most parents don’t realize the enormous influence they have on kids — for better or worse,” Califano says. “Research shows that kids who see their parents drunk are much more likely to drink, or do drugs.”
Many parents, Califano adds, “are unlikely to use their positive power” to help their teenagers avoid illegal substances. One major reason: “They’re too concerned about what their kids might say, or what other parents are doing. There’s pressure on parents, as well as on kids.”
Tomorrow, Califano will help parents identify the times when youngsters are at higher risk for using alcohol and drugs: the beginning of middle school. The beginning of high school. Events like Homecoming.
“Schools can help deal with this,” Califano says. “But parents are key.”
The drug and alcohol problem will be solved, he believes, “not in courtrooms, but in living rooms and dining rooms” across the country.
Califano speaks throughout the US. From what he’s seen, his home town is “not much different from any affluent community where kids have the resources to get and use” drugs and alcohol.
Tomorrow he travels only a mile or two to talk. The national expert looks forward to seeing his neighbors — parents, teachers and teenagers — in his own back yard.
(A 2nd event — “Community Conversation: Underage Drinking — Whose Responsibility Is It?” — is set for this Wednesday, October 28, 7:30 p.m. at the Westport Library. Co-sponsored by the Staples PTA and Smilow Family, the free-flowing open forum will include high school principal John Dodig.)
In just 5 months of operation, SafeRides has become a routine part of Westport weekend life — respected and used by teenagers, admired (for the most part) by adults.
Staples senior Alex Dulin — a 1-girl tornado who created the organization soon after moving here from suburban Seattle — made such an impact that this month she received the 2009 Youth Leadership Award from the Connecticut Youth Services Association.
A few days later — in the aftermath of Staples’ Homecoming that laid bare the extent of underage drinking — Alex reflected on alcohol, SafeRides, and teen life in Westport.
“There are many more volunteers here than in the program in Washington,” Alex said. “It was a little more difficult finding drivers here with all the driving restrictions. But since July, when SafeRides was exempt from the teen driving rules, it has been smooth sailing.”
The opening night of Saferides, last May. Alex Dulin is in the front row, wearing a white top.
Alex was surprised by how well the community responded to the idea. Knowing the controversy it could cause — the big rap on programs like this is that they encourage teen drinking — Alex was prepared to “battle.”
She didn’t have to. “Most Westporters received it with open arms,” she said.
In fact, the only issue is a few callers each Saturday night who want to test SafeRides, or avoid paying for a taxi.
Overall, Alex said, “students have reacted extremely well to SafeRides. We’re busy on Saturday nights, but the amount of volunteers each week is phenomenal.” Over 100 Staples students signed up during Club Rush.
Adults have also taken to the program. “Most are not naive,” Alex said. “They recognize that drinking is part of the teen culture — in Westport and the nation — and rather than teach abstinence, we may as well prevent a tragedy.”
Alex has received a few angry letters and emails from “concerned community members” who call the program a negative influence. But, she said, “all the positive feedback every week drowns out those remarks.”
Besides safety, Alex calls SafeRides “an opportunity. It gives students and adults the chance to give back to our town, and become part of the community.” It’s also “a chance for all of us to learn just how prevalent alcohol and drug issues in Westport are.”
As for Homecoming, Alex called it “quite an event. Was it upsetting? Yes. Was it surprising? No.
“I received a couple of emails after Homecoming from adults, some stating that they were happy the program was up and running since it was obvious just how many kids were drinking, and others who put the blame on the program.”
Alex believes strongly that “there is no way underage drinking can be blamed on SafeRides. It is a reaction-based program, and in no way teaches students to drink. Teens will drink no matter what. Adults can tell us the negative side effects, we can get suspended from school, and our parents can ground us for a month — but it won’t deter the drinking social scene. It’s just too prevalent. We may as well do what we can to prevent any accidents, which would just destroy our town.”
Staples’ Homecoming last Saturday had everything: Perfect fall weather. A one-sided victory by the football team. Several students hauled off to the hospital, after way too much pre-game alcohol.
Principal John Dodig reacted swiftly. Yesterday he sent a strong but objective letter to parents. It read:
Homecoming weekend has come and gone. The 4 days of Spirit Week went very well, ending with a rousing pep rally out in the brilliant sunlight. As principal of a school of 1,800 students, I could not have asked for a better Homecoming experience leading up to the game on Saturday.
Each year, planning for this event is a calculated risk. Should we provide an escape valve for pent-up excitement and energy, even encouraging it with a pep rally, or avoid the possibility of mayhem by abandoning the experience altogether? The answer we’ve come to is that it is part of the American high school experience, and at Staples can be done safely. It helps build Staples spirit.
Saturday was Homecoming day. Most of our teams were successful over the weekend and our football team had to restrain itself to keep an astounding lead from becoming too wide. Coach P and our boys did a great job, and I’m proud of them.
Here is the problem, and the reason I am writing to you. Many of our students have learned very well the lessons they see on television each week when watching college and professional sports or when attending college and professional sporting events. It all begins with partying in the morning so they can have a good time.
Teenagers are bombarded with media messages extolling drinking
Every one of us who has attended a game at Yankee or Giants Stadium, Yale Bowl or any other large venue knows that drinking is out of control. I’m old and wise enough to be able to say that it has become an established part of our culture not easily erased. I’m not about to attempt that task.
On the other hand, I am the principal of Staples High School and charged with providing a safe place for your children to learn, socialize, and mature. When I know, with confidence, that drinking among a LARGE number of students WILL take place at the Homecoming Day game, why should I continue to support it? Has the whole idea of Homecoming become nothing more than an excuse to drink and behave badly?
Sending several girls to the hospital for being intoxicated and endangering their lives is serious business. We will start planning for Homecoming well before the event next year. In the meantime, however, I need your support, help, and input.
What's a game without a cold one?
It was truly unfortunate that we administrators had to make calls to parents to either pick up their children at Norwalk Hospital or come to the school to bring them home. There were MANY more who had been drinking but who were not caught because they didn’t pass out or vomit. A walk into the stands left NO doubt that lots of alcohol had been consumed before the game (drinking in the morning?). There was little or nothing we could do at that point without causing a riot.
But there are questions I have to ask before we decide whether or not to repeat this event next year. Here are a few:
1) Can parents do more to monitor what their children are doing before the game?
2) Should we breathalyze each student we suspect has been drinking?
3) Should we simply accept that drinking will take place, ignore it, and simply tend to the sick?
4) Should we have seniors sign the same contract they sign before prom but use it to cover ALL school events and have underclassmen sign a similar contract with different consequences?
I look forward to hearing from you about this matter. I will bring it up as a topic of discussion at our PTA Coffees this year. I will speak to students about this matter. I will consult with teachers and administrators about their feelings.
The bottom line is, as you’ve heard me say many times, that we want students to like Staples. We want them to have occasional fun and let their hair down. We can’t ignore, however, that portions of Homecoming have evolved into something very negative and potentially dangerous to our students. That is the part I cannot ignore or accept. Let’s make something positive out of a very negative experience.
Dodig has received over 100 emails so far — nearly all of them positive and supportive. Suggestions range from canceling Homecoming altogether, to using a breathalyzer, to raising townwide awareness.
“The next few PTA coffees should be interesting,” he notes.
Dodig welcomes more feedback, in the form of a community-wide conversation. Click the “Comments” link at the top or bottom of this post to add your view.
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