Effort to ‘change the culture’ needed to reduce underage drinking
With a bevy of binge drinking stats projected on the wall behind her, public health educator Rebecca Greisen summed up Wisconsin in one line: “We like to drink.”
At a town hall meeting on March 10 at the Colby Community Library, Greisen and other public health officials presided over a wide-ranging discussion about the issue of underage drinking in Clark County.
Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks and other law enforcement officers joined in on the conversation, as did teachers and staff from Colby and Abby schools, and a trio of students from Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).
With Wisconsin leading the nation in some dubious categories — 10 of the country’s top 20 “drunkest” cities are in the Badger State, according to a 2018 report — a lot of the discussion was about how to teach kids to make good decisions in a society where alcohol is widely consumed.
Alcohol is served at nearly every type of event, from softball games to baby showers, Greisen noted.
“So, when you have it normalized like that for adults, how do you think that impacts our youth?” Greisen said. “It is direct modeling.”
Greisen opened the discussion by displaying statewide data about the health impacts and societal costs of excessive drinking in Wisconsin and then localized the topic by displaying responses from local students on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted in the spring of 2019.
Based on responses from 774 students in seven Clark County high schools, including Colby and Abbotsford, 27 percent (209) had consumed at least one alcoholic beverage in the past month, and 14 percent (108) admitted to binge drinking. Of those who said they had consumed alcohol, 38 percent said the first time was before the age of 13.
Survey results from 740 middle school students indicated that 19 percent of sixth to eighth-graders also admitted to drinking within the past 30 days.
Brittany Mews, director of the Clark County Health Department, said one misconception among many adults is that drinking alcohol is somehow less risky for their kids than other activities like smoking or vaping.
“Any amount of alcohol consumption, on the adolescent brain, hinders proper brain development,” she said.
Monica Tessmer, the SADD advisor at Colby High School, said students who want to make the right decisions are battling a small-town culture that has been around for generations.
“Going out on the back roads and drinking and partying is the norm here,” she said. “It has been the norm for 30 years.” Tessmer said SADD tries to change this norm through education and activities that expose kids to the dangers of drunk driving, such as the mock accident held at the end of every school year.
Chrisie Wright, a health teacher in Colby, echoed Tessmer’s statements about the challenge of pushing back on pervasive attitudes. She said her eighth-grade students simply don’t believe her when she tells them that not every high school student drinks.
“They’re getting these thoughts from somewhere,” she said.
Laura Garcia Torres, a teacher’s aide and graduate of Abbotsford High School, said she hears directly from students who drink regularly and find ways to get away with it.
“They pretty much look forward to the weekends because of the parties,” she said.
Speaking as a member of the Hispanic community, Garcia Torres said parents in her culture are generally OK with their kids drinking alcohol. Oftentimes, she said parents provide alcohol at graduation parties or other events.
Overall, alcohol usage among white and Hispanic students is about the same, though significantly more Hispanic students report drinking before the age of 13, according to the YRBS results.
Jessica Bohl, a native of Peru who is now the director of English Language Learners education in Colby, said it is more socially acceptable for teenagers to drink alcohol in Latin American countries, where the age limit is much lower and rarely enforced.
“If you go to a relative’s house, they will offer your kid a drink, and it’s completely acceptable,” she said.
Even when they move to a different country with a higher drinking age, Hispanic families don’t automatically adapt to those new restrictions, Bohl said.
“Parents are not aware of the risks to the child’s health and development,” she said. “If they understood that, I think they’d be more likely to say ‘Hey, no, this is not OK.’” Law enforcement officers said the behavior starts at home, and it spreads faster and further because of social media. Sheriff Parks said parents need to think about how their own actions affect their kids.
“What they see is what they’re going to do,” he said.
Community member Jeremiah Zeiset, who shared his own story about giving up alcohol, said each individual has to have a “change of heart” on a spiritual level.
“It’s going to change one person at a time,” he said. “One person being brave enough to say ‘No, this is not OK.’ That’s really what’s going to change the culture in the end.”
“Going out on the back roads and drinking and partying is the norm here. It has been the norm for 30 years.” Colby High School SADD Advisor Monica Tessmer
Members of the Colby School District talk with Clark County law enforcement about the issue of underage drinking during a public hearing at the Colby Community Library on March 10.
KEVIN O’BRIEN/TRIBUNE PHONOGRAPH PHOTO