December 4, 2014

Teen substance-abuse expert: Parents are key to prevention

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The advent of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado came with the promise of new funding for public schools, but the industry is still developing and tax revenue hasn't reached anticipated levels yet.

Drug Enforcement Administration

The advent of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado came with the promise of new funding for public schools, but the industry is still developing and tax revenue hasn't reached anticipated levels yet.

Get involved.

If there were two words to sum up a Dec. 2 parent meeting about substance-abuse prevention at Aspen High School, then they were, “Get involved.”

Dave Waterman, of FCD Educational Services, a nonprofit that does drug and alcohol prevention work around the globe, opened the Tuesday evening meeting: “The fact that you’ve come tonight is in fact the most important, critical point. Please talk to (your kids) about how you felt about this meeting, let them know you came here.”

Both Waterman and Michael Connolly, of the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, emphasized to the audience of 60 to 70 parents and school staff members that the moralistic, “Just Say No” campaigns of the past don’t really speak to teens.

The key, they said, to reducing drug and alcohol abuse among Aspen-area students lies in the family.

“Eat together,” Waterman told parents. “Talk with your teens about alcohol and drugs. Listen to their thoughts. Spend time with them.”

Over the past 38 years, Waterman said, FCD has contacted some 2 million youngsters in 60 countries. The organization has visited Aspen for several years, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the Dec. 1 to 4 Chemical Dependency Prevention Week. The Valley Partnership is hosting the event with help from the Buchholz family, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County.

For seven years, Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention has surveyed Aspen High students about their drug and alcohol usage and attitudes. The data shows, Waterman said, that “50 percent of high school students have never, not once, used marijuana.” Connolly added later that the 50 percent figure is “balanced out by lower numbers of freshmen and higher numbers of upperclassmen.”

Some parents at the meeting questioned the survey data, and stated their fears that Aspen’s resort-town party culture leads to inordinate amounts of drug and alcohol abuse among teens. One parent said, “I really think we’re at a crisis.”

Connolly said there’s a big gap, both locally and nationally, between perceptions and reality when it comes to teen substance abuse. After-the-fact stories about last weekend’s big party often paint an exaggerated picture.

“There is a lot of alcohol and marijuana use at Aspen High School,” Connolly said. “But it’s not 90 percent.”

Regardless of the hard-to-measure realities of drug and alcohol usage among Aspen High students, the message to parents was clear. “If you’re worried about your kid,” Waterman told one parent, “then you’ve got to pull him back in.”

That means not only talking to the child about the danger of exposing his or her developing teenage brain to unhealthy substances, but also setting limits, expectations and curfews. Tell the kid you’ll meet him outside the party at 10 p.m., Waterman said, even if you have to park one block away.

One of Waterman’s PowerPoint slides said, among other pointers, “Get to know their friends.” He also strongly suggested, “Be awake when they come home.”

One parent wondered how to react when other parents throw parties with alcohol and drugs.
“The peer pressure in the adult community is off the charts,” Waterman said. In other words, don’t succumb to adult peer pressure. Give the party throwers a piece of your mind.

Waterman did have some words of reassurance. “Aspen High is not at all out of control or off the charts,” he said, and harder drugs aren’t really in play. “By and large, it’s alcohol and marijuana that you need to be concerned about.”

Nonetheless, there’s room for more substance-abuse education and conversation. One idea that Connolly and Waterman plan to pursue is a parent-student roundtable, where multiple generations could get together and authentically discuss everything from legalized marijuana to e-cigarettes and prescription drugs in a safe environment.

“We’ve not hosted one here,” Waterman said, “but we’ve done it all over the world.”

Aspen Journalism’s Education Desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times on school issues. The Times published this story on Wednesday, Dec. 3.

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