May 6, 2010

Underage Drinking Can Make Close of School Year Memorable for Wrong Reasons

With prom season in full bloom and graduation just around the corner, students at high schools like Scotland County R-I in Memphis start thinking about the dresses, tuxedos, flowers, graduation gifts and parties.

The Health Literacy Missouri project reminds that while every teen wants this to be a time to remember, alcohol can easily make it a season to forget. Although teens may not originally start drinking on prom night, by the time they’re a senior in high school 75 percent of students have already consumed alcohol.

“I encourage parents to listen as much as they talk during conversations about alcohol, asking kids open questions about what he or she knows about alcohol or why teens drink,” says Dr. Susan O’Neill, psychologist at the University of Missouri’s Student Health Center.

“This communicates respect to kids and gives parents a natural opportunity for giving information without lecturing. These kinds of talks become times to connect when parents regularly ‘check-in’ with their teens during the conversation, asking ‘What do you think about that idea?’”

The communication appears to have paid great dividends on Saturday, SCR-I’s prom night.

The Memphis Police Department reported no accidents or traffic stops. An increased officer presence throughout the evening combined with efforts by the school system to streamline the schedule for the evening made it one of the least busy such nights for the dispatch system, which did not receive a single call related to the event.

“We applaud the efforts of the students to make this special night memorable for the right reasons,” said police chief Bill Holland. “The school administration made some changes in the scheduling that eliminated part of the downtime for the prom attendees during the night, but the kids ultimately deserve the credit for handling themselves in a safe, responsible fashion while still having fun.”

Even though teens can’t legally purchase alcohol in Scotland County or any other county in Missouri, this doesn’t mean teens don’t have access to it. In fact, in 2007, underage drinkers consumed almost 17 percent of all of the alcohol sold in the state. One study found that four out of five teens found it easy to get alcohol from a friend’s parent.

One aspect of underage drinking is binge drinking, which is an especially risky behavior for teens. According to the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center, 29 percent of Missouri students in grades 9 to 12 had five or more drinks in a row in the past month.

Often this type of behavior leads to fatalities on the roads. In 2007, there were an estimated 48 traffic fatalities and 1,600 nonfatal traffic fatalities linked to underage drunk drivers in Missouri. And young people don’t need to have a drink in their hand to be at risk, either. That’s because 28 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 rode in the vehicle of a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

The Web site The Cool Spot is a good place for teens to go for facts about alcohol and how to say “no” to peer pressure when it comes to drinking. For parents, Dr. O’Neill recommends, the suggestions in the booklet, “Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child About Alcohol,” that has information on the warning signs of drinking, prevention strategies, and alcohol risks. It can be found online at:

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