Millburn Township cherishes the fine reputation of its schools and the pristine image of a community which sets high standards and creates untold opportunities for growth, enrichment, and advancement. Yet the youth of this town are at-risk for a problem we as educators and parents must acknowledge exists in our community.
The problem is alcohol and young people. It is a real problem that often manifests in weekend parties and other celebrations. It sometimes finds its way into our schools. Literally.
On more than one occasion this year we have had to discipline students who brought alcohol to school.
Who could tell the difference between water and gin or vodka in a water bottle? Does a ban on water bottles actually solve the problem of children seeking to use alcohol at such an early age?
How do children purchase alcohol? How are children able to gain access to alcohol in the home of their parents or their friends? Most disturbing, why do middle and high school students think that alcohol is integral to “having a good time?”
Parents who serve alcohol to middle school children because “the kids will not be driving themselves home” are guilty of child abuse and of breaking the law. Fundamentally, these very same people could be inaugurating children into a cycle of addiction and dependency and all the life-threatening risks that accompany them. The peril to preadolescents is greater because they have not yet developed a strong sense of judgement.
All kids are at risk. No profile exists of the “type” of kid prone to experiment with drinking, especially just to be a part of a social group. These pre-teen years are all about negotiating the temptations and risks associated with growing up while simultaneously acquiring greater independence and freedom.
Adolescence is a tough time, and society and marketing moguls have shortened the finish line to adulthood. The images projected in commercials, cable TV and computers influence our budding children to be like the models they see. If past generations of teenagers faced these very same challenges in high school, with what sophistication do we expect middle school students to combat these powerful images and messages.
The bigger question is how do we combat the problem of alcoholism and alcohol abuse in our community?
First, we have to be honest about it. Local newspapers should report all incidents of drinking by minors, whether in a residence or on township property. The law protects the identity of minors, and the purpose of publication should never be to shame children.
Second, adults who supply alcohol to minors should be prosecuted.
Third, there is no substitute for parental supervision. Liquor in a household must be stored in a locked cabinet or in another place where young adults do not have access. Knowing the whereabouts of children and arranging for their supervision when parents are not home continue to be a part of the parenting equation in middle school. Middle school kids should not be hanging out in town or with high school students. The influence of peers and older students cannot be overstated.
Fourth, parents must talk to their kids. Honest exchanges about the dangers of drinking, smoking and use of narcotics, as well as their addictive tendencies, is a beginning. More importantly, affirming each individual’s sense of self, uniqueness, personality, and character creates stronger individuals who do not need to use alcohol as a way to belong or escape.
Middle level learners are curious by nature. They want to try on adult behaviors, but think they are immune from harm. They require guidance, patience, and love. Sometimes, tough love.
Fifth, parents must continue to provide structures and boundaries for their children. Parents who allow their sons or daughters to invite peers to their homes shoulder the responsibility and liability for their well-being. Some parents have students check all bags, coats, and shoes at the front door.
As a school we are committed to following the statutory protocol we have spelled out in our Student/Parent Handbook. We will not waiver in contacting parents and police if a student brings a controlled substance to school. We are legally bound to “code” a student who may be under the influence by requiring a doctor’s findings from a urine and/or blood screening before allowing the student to return to school.
We have great kids! Most of our students know the difference between right and wrong and telling versus tattling. It is because students care about the welfare of others that we often find out about activities that pose danger. This safety net allows us to intervene and prevent intoxication, blood alcohol poisoning, and potentially deadly outcomes. Middle school students who make mistakes learn valuable lessons about caring and consequences from their family and school.
Our school maintains a Student Support Committee which accepts referrals from faculty for students whose academic progress or behavior changes could possibly be due to at-risk behaviors. The committee investigates possible causes and generates suggestions to assist the student. Some of these interventions include increased parent contact, mentoring, or referral to our school psychologist or a student assistance counselor.
The time that they spend in middle school is when they are so impressionable. By working together to acknowledge a problem in our community, perhaps we can curtail the drinking and use of other dangerous substances. I am committed to working with the Millburn Municipal Alliance, our PTO, and our faculty to do what we can to promote a safer environment for our children.