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December 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 4

How We Fight Teen Drinking

Community education and alternatives to partying change teens' habits in a small town.

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Four years ago, educators in Batesville, Indiana, discovered that alcohol abuse among teens was a serious problem in our rural community of 6,000 people. We created Choices, a districtwide program, to involve parents, teach students about alcohol, and create alternatives to drinking in someone's basement on Saturday night. As a result, Batesville significantly reduced students' reported use of alcohol.
In 2005, when I was assistant superintendent of the Batesville Community School Corporation (our term for school districts in Indiana), we often had to deal with intoxicated students at school dances and discipline students for alcohol-related offenses at our middle and high school (Batesville has one of each). Data from the Indiana Prevention Resource Center's Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use Survey and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk and Behavior Survey confirmed that Batesville's rate of student alcohol use was higher than both state and national averages, with 27 percent of our students reporting that they used alcohol at least monthly.
In a rural area like ours, students frequently say, "There's nothing to do around here but drink." Drinking becomes ingrained in youth culture. We decided to fight back. The school corporation's Drug Free Task Force designed Choices and began implementing it on a small scale in the 2005–06 school year. The next year, we received grants (partially drawing on federal Title IV money for drug-free schools) and hired three staff members.
The program includes three key components: a parent pledge, parent and student education events, and supervised social gatherings for all teenagers in the community.

A Public Pledge

All households with middle or high school students receive the parent pledge early in the school year. We ask all parents to sign it. Those who sign commit to talking with their children about alcohol abuse and providing a home environment where teenagers have no access to alcohol or drugs. More than one-half of our secondary students' families have signed. Names of signers are displayed in our middle and high school newsletters and on each school's Web site. This lets parents check whether a family who is hosting a teen party, for example, has pledged.

Upping the Volume on Our Message

Batesville schools' health curriculum has always addressed the dangers of alcohol and drugs, but many students were tuning out the message. We now state that message more frequently and in a more compelling way. At least once each quarter, our secondary schools host some type of mandatory, engaging presentation that gets students talking about teen drinking and its consequences.
For example, an individual speaks to all students about the day that—while drunk—he crashed the car he was driving, resulting in a passenger's death. Students play challenging games while wearing "fatal vision goggles" that simulate how vision changes with alcohol intake. We bring in a simulator that lets each student sit behind the wheel and experience how vision and driving performance deteriorate as a person becomes drunk. We've also hosted programs on methamphetamine abuse, glue sniffing, and risky Internet use. Educational events typically include a session with students during the school day and an open meeting for parents in the evening.

Another Saturday Night

To challenge the conventional wisdom that there's nothing happening in Batesville, Choices staff and parent volunteers frequently sponsor supervised, fun events for our kids. We work with partners like the town's only movie theater and the local YMCA.
These activities have become hugely popular, especially with middle schoolers; it's not unusual for half the middle school class to turn up at Middle School Movie Night at Gibson Theatre. Bee Active—our local gym—and the YMCA open their facilities to us for activity nights, complete with a climbing wall, indoor soccer field, pingpong, Dance Dance Revolution, and a concessions stand. We hold dodgeball, euchre, and poker tournaments. A Cincinnati-based rock band played a free concert at Batesville High School after a major basketball game.
There's no overt antidrinking message at these events, but we always display our Choices banner and volunteers sport our signature T-shirts, which say, "You Are Your Choices."
In the past, many students left Batesville High School's after-prom event early to go drinking. Now, prom revelers win "Choices dollars" throughout the evening but can't redeem them for prizes (including cash and electronics equipment) unless they stay until the end. Eighty percent of students now stay in this supervised setting.
Choices is working. Recent results from the two surveys indicate a decrease in alcohol use; for example, the percentage of seniors drinking monthly decreased from 53.6 percent to 40.8 percent. Alcohol-related discipline referrals at our schools are dramatically reduced. We no longer have incidents of drinking at school dances. As students become accustomed to alcohol-free socializing, the teen culture in Batesville is changing for the healthier.

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