ALPENA - There will be a community forum to discuss underage drinking, solutions and statistics from the community on Thursday from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Alpena County Library in the Community Room.
The forum, sponsored by The News will include a panel discussion featuring Alpena County Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski, Alpena County Assistant Prosecutor Russ Rhynard, Alpena High School Principal Matt Poli, substance abuse counselor Matt Muszynski and Michigan Liquor Control Commission investigator Cindy Ranshaw. The discussion will be moderated by News Publisher Bill Speer and Managing Editor Steve Murch.
"Panel members have been provided with some topics of discussion, and there will be an opportunity for the audience to take part and ask questions during the forum," Alpena Public Schools Parent Involvement Coordinator Lee Fitzpatrick said. "During the next few months, prom and graduation will be taking place, and it's important to discuss the risks involved for students during this time. We want to reinforce good, solid decisions."
Underage drinking is an issue that every community deals with, and there are different events that take place during the year to address the issue. This forum is yet another way to provide parents and students with information on the topic, and answer questions about teen drinking.
"Any time we can get support and make awareness available to the public it is a great opportunity," Fitzpatrick said. "As a parent involvement coordinator, from my perspective, I encourage parents and their youth to attend. The more you know about a topic the better you can prepare to handle it."
Catholic Human Services certified prevention specialist Donna Hardies said students are particularly vulnerable to partake in underage drinking during prom and graduation, and parents need to talk with students about the consequences of using alcohol while underage.
"Students don't get alcohol by going to the store, they are finding it at home and getting it from friends," Hardies said. "Sometimes the perception of drinking is that it is a rite of passage because 'everybody has done it.' Students get the idea that drinking is socially acceptable. Around 70 percent of students surveyed in Alpena, Montmorency and Alcona counties said it's easy or very easy to obtain alcohol."
Hardies said that according to a survey of local ninth- through 11th-graders, 53 percent of students say they have already had a drink. Of those 53 percent, 17 percent of them said their first drink was before they were 13 years old.
"In ninth through 11th grade, 36 percent of students admitted to having been drunk at least once," Hardies said. "We have programs in place to increase awareness of teen drinking, such as the DARE Program in fifth and sixth grade, but the question is how do we continue that education."
Students receive education on drinking and awareness, but the local statistics from the Michigan Profile for Health Youth show that half of students are still participating in underage drinking.
"Parents and students should be aware of how the brain development works," Hardies said. "The brain continues development until the age of 25, so binge drinking, and regular consumption can inhibit that development."
Another topic of concern is the social host concept where parents or adults can be held liable for knowingly allowing underage drinking on their property.
"The forum will allow for discussion on several issues, and the social host concept is one of them," Hardies said. "Any knowledge a parent or student can add is good. This event gives us an opportunity to discuss the concerns about underage drinking, and be aware of the ability to have fun without getting alcohol involved."
During the community forum, drawings also will be held for 12 gas cards worth $25, all free to the public.
"Underage drinking is a difficult topic for discussion in many families," Hardies said. "We hope this discussion will give parents and students the information they need to be better aware of what is going on in the community."
Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.