Ask people living in Clarke County whether or not the county has an underage drinking problem and you’re certain to gain agreement on one point; “If even one teenager is injured due to alcohol then we have a significant problem.”
Based on the “injury criteria” alone, Clarke County sadly qualifies as having an underage drinking problem and has had for many years. But recent events involving the tragic death of Aaron Shirley as well as the suspension of several Clarke County High School students for alcohol possession during a school-sponsored trip has many community members wondering aloud about the pervasiveness of the problem.
Unfortunately, tracking underage drinking only by the statistics generated when our sons and daughters are devastated by its impacts, either by an automobile accident or some other tragic calamity, is a painfully inadequate solution for assessing the problem. It is all too easy to assume progress until the tragedy shocks underage drinking back into the forefront of our collective community consciousness and we find that nothing has really changed.
While statistical tools and approaches exist to help gauge the extent of teen drinking, Clarke County and many other Virginia municipalities have opted out of formal sampling programs in recent years making credible information about teen alcohol abuse hard to find. Without hard data to quantify the problem, the Clarke County community and its leaders are left with largely anecdotal information insufficient to assess and address the true scope of the problem.
Underage Drinking – Virginia and Nationwide
According to the “2005 Virginia Youth Survey” conducted across 62 Virginia school districts statewide by the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, 46% of Virginia high school seniors reported using alcohol during the 30 days prior to answering the survey questionnaire. 76% said that they had used alcohol at least once during 12th grade.
Virginia 8th graders and 10th graders demonstrated a similar trend with 19% of 8th graders and 35% of 10th graders reporting alcohol use in the previous 30 days. 42% and 64%, respectively, claimed alcohol use during the school year.
Unfortunately, specific data for Clarke County is not available from the survey because the county was not represented in either the 2003 or 2005 Virginia Youth Survey. In 2003 Clarke County was not selected for inclusion in the Virginia Youth Survey. In 2005 the survey lists Clarke as one of 19 counties that “refused to participate” in the survey.
Apparently Clarke County was not alone in opting out of the Virginia Youth Survey. Lack of participation broadened in 2009 preventing the data from being shared at all according Dr. Mary A. Moore, senior research associate at VCU’s Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory.
“The Virginia Department of Health did not release the data from the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2009) because they did not get enough participation from the selected schools” Moore said. “Unfortunately, there is no good youth data for Virginia. The CYS (Community Youth Survey) is so old now that it’s no longer good.”
While Clarke County specific data is difficult to find, a more recent regional reference point for Clarke County exists in survey results of teens in neighboring Loudoun County.
“Voices for Virginia’s Children” summarizes data from youth health risk surveys administered in four Northern Virginia localities including Loudoun. The survey data highlights the strengths and challenges facing the region’s youth. The information is intended to expand the knowledge of legislators, policymakers, community leaders, program directors, and other stakeholders and to promote community initiatives which address the complex and diverse needs of youth in Northern Virginia, including alcohol abuse.
According to the “Voices for Virginia’s Children” survey, 31% of Loudoun County 10th graders and 43% of 12th graders used alcohol over the past 30 days in 2009.
Similar studies demonstrate that alcohol abuse is also a serious problem nationwide.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcohol is the “drug of choice” for middle school and high school students eclipsing both marijuana and other illicit drugs in 2009:
Nationwide Alcohol Use – 2009
|8th Graders (%)||10th Graders (%)||12th Graders (%)|
(Note: “Brackets” indicate a statistically significant change from 2008 data)
“That Will Never Happen to Me”
A common frustration voiced by adults when speaking to teens about the dangers of alcohol abuse is the response “That wouldn’t happen to me.”
Despite the common perception of invincibility among young people, statistics indicate alcohol abuse and its associated deleterious side effects do occur with unsettling frequency.
The 2005 Virginia Youth Survey indicates that alcohol is the most commonly used substance by Virginia high school and middle school students; 59% of the students surveyed had used alcohol and 32% reported drinking within the past 30 days.
Approximately 14% of students reported having been drunk or high at school.
Given the frequent incidence of alcohol use, underage drinkers still reported ambivalence towards potential dangers associated with its use:
– 40% of rural students surveyed from rural school districts believe that alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs pose little risk
– 9% of students surveyed believe that having one or two alcoholic beverages nearly every day poses no risks
– 53% of rural students surveyed believe they will not be caught by police if they use illegal substances (including alcohol)
– Binge drinking within the past two weeks was reported by 7% of eighth graders, 16% of tenth graders and 26% of twelfth graders.
80% of the students surveyed reported that their family had rules about alcohol and drug use, yet slightly less than half of those same students believed that they would be “caught” by their parents if they drank without their parent’s permission.
The Virginia Youth Survey found that the mean age for first using alcohol is 13.23 years with “drinking regularly” (consuming alcoholic beverages at least once or twice per month) commencing at 14.43 years of age.
Student survey responses consistently underestimate the risk of alcohol use and underscore the denial expressed by many young people towards their own mortality when it comes to the impacts of drinking.
Alcohol is also linked to more subtle problems that can result in life-long challenges for the early drinker. According to “Voices for Virginia’s Children“, youth who regularly use alcohol are more likely to experience major depression, engage in unplanned and unprotected sex, have been victims of violence and drop out of school.
Underage drinking is a factor in nearly half of all teen automobile crashes, the leading cause of death among teenagers.
Does Clarke County Share in the Nation’s Underage Drinking Problem?
What little statistical data that exists on underage drinking in Clarke County comes from law enforcement. From January 1st through July 15th, 2010 the following arrest statistics were reported by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department and the Berryville Police Department:
|Adult DUI||Juvenile DUI||Juvenile Alcohol Offenses|
|Clarke County Sheriff’s Department||25||0||0|
|Berryville Police Department||4||0||2|
Clarke County “field parties”, secluded gatherings of often underage drinkers in isolated agricultural areas of the county, have been mythologized by teens and adults for years. Many Clarke County teens describe field party events as occurring nearly every weekend.
Yet anecdotal perceptions of field party regularity are at odds with law enforcement statistics.
The Clarke County Sheriff’s Department reports that it has responded to just five “field parties” during 2010. However, three of the field party investigations have occurred since the traffic accident that claimed the life of Aaron Shirley and, according to the Sheriff Department’s “Weekly Crime Report”, a field party arrest was made on Beydler Lane for underage possession of alcohol and marijuana possession on July 17th.
Community concern is also piqued by factors other than field party rumors. Evidence of recent push back from anonymous teen drinkers is also fueling public perception of a larger problem.
A recent Facebook page snapshot entitled “Teen Awareness, Making a Difference Through Aaron Shirley” includes the following indication of a sub-surface rebellion against attempts to address teen alcohol abuse:
Leea [redacted]: I am sorry that some of the teens in Clarke County find it necessary to falsely accuse [redacted] of busting the parties. I am very upset that this is how you show your respect to Aaron and his family. I will promise that when I hear of a party I will be turning it in to law enforcement. We are on a mission that NO OTHER …family has to deal with what our family has endured over the past month.
Teen Awareness, Making a Difference Through Aaron Shirley: This page is for people who want to change & make a difference, not for people who still continue to party. Smashing mail boxes is not only immature but disrespectful to someone who is trying to save lives. Sorry some of us care more about you, then you seem to care about yourself. We arent trying to make life “suck” for you. Were trying to prevent this from happening so you or your friends won’t be the next victim.
Mary Ann [redacted]: Smashing mail boxes is tampering with government property. What happened to sticking to the law? Why weren’t charges brought forth? Instead the teens were rewarded by letting them stay on the team. Where was the athletic director, coach and or principal? What kind of message did they send out to the kids? [â€¦] Because it has gone on way too long. [â€¦] I pray that everyone who reads this site will take a stance and support you.
Perhaps most perplexing to many community leaders and residents is the seeming disconnect between the public perception that county teens regularly abuse alcohol and arrest statistics that don’t corroborate the public’s assumptions. Many people simply don’t know what to believe when it comes to teen alcohol abuse in Clarke County.
Both the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department and the Berryville Police Department say that deputies enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy for any juvenile found to be in use or possession of alcohol. Clarke County law enforcement officials all say that the level of liability is simply too high to ever consider allowing a juvenile to be released with only a warning when an alcohol offense is suspected.
Similarly, some community members have asked; “If the level of field parties and house parties is as common as some believe, isn’t the fact that so few parties are investigated indicative of law enforcement looking the other way?”
Both Clarke County law enforcement agencies said that the low number of investigations into parties and alcohol are only indicative of the lack of reports of such events. Law enforcement says that without a report from a citizen about an event where teen alcohol abuse is occurring, it is nearly impossible to make an investigation or arrest.
Clarke County’s law enforcement officials all expressed disappointment about the unwillingness of citizens to step forward to make a report, the first step in battling teen alcohol abuse.
County officials fare little better than citizens when it comes to assessing the teen drinking problem.
One county official said “While any underage drinking in our community could be considered a significant concern, I do not think we are uniquely affected by this public health problem, and believe that our School District and the Sheriff’s Department have been sensitive to this issue.”
Another county official cited a lack of compelling evidence specific to Clarke County on the issue; “It is my understanding that under-age drinking is a national problem. Obviously, the recent accidents show that Clarke is not immune but I have no data with which to state we are better or worse than other areas.”
A school official characterized the scope of the issue as “Since all [redacted] of my children are well beyond the teen years, I really don’t have a pulse on current situation. [â€¦] I do not think there are any more drinking issues now than what was here over the past [redacted] that I have been in Clarke County. There has always been an issue that only appears more prevalent today because of the increased student population and several recent tragedies. And the same degree of teen drinking is in our neighboring counties so it is not a Clarke County problem [only]”.
A school staff member with daily exposure to Clarke County teens may have summarized the issue most concisely;
“If state and national statistics all indicate a teen alcohol problem both nationwide and in neighboring counties, what would make any of us believe that Clarke County is any different? The statistics indicate that four out of ten seniors are getting hammered at least once a month. That’s just not acceptable.”
Who Takes the Lead?
In speaking with Clarke County officials it is clear that that there is both empathy and concern in addressing teen alcohol abuse, regardless of the level of its severity. Every official interviewed for this article expressed the position that “even one child injured due to alcohol is too severe of a price to pay.”
However, while the most consistent sentiment expressed by officials is that the public school system should take the lead with the teen alcohol abuse issue, it was not clear that that the school system is fully empowered from an authoritative and financial perspective to implement the complex educational, law enforcement and community response necessary to fully address the problem.
“I personally think it should begin in the home but that doesn’t seem to happen. The community as a whole needs to embrace the need to curb teen drinking. Perhaps better modeling by the adults would be a good start. I think all of our civic groups, churches and assembled bodies need to have programs presented by authoritarians on what is happening and try to problem solve ways to improve. Having more things for the teens to do and a safe place to congregate would be exceedingly helpful. The schools could provide safe locations but we must have community members involved in the chaperoning. We cannot expect teachers who are already underpaid and overworked to do this aspect” said one school official.
A Clarke County Supervisor shared the view that changing attitudes about underage drinking is a community challenge.
“Parents have to work on developing good judgment and being good role models for their kids. But the community has to help too. We have to help kids understand that while it’s fine to be successful and popular you should first strive to be an individual” the county supervisor said. “Don’t do things just to be part of a clique.”
A school official echoed a similar sentiment; “The schools can do a lot but underage drinking is a community issue. Meaningful change will not occur until the county’s leadership helps the community see the importance of its role in the process.”
Is it possible to change the public’s perception that teen drinking is unavoidable and is simply an unavoidable reality”?
Yes, according to a social services official who likened it to acceptance of public smoking thirty years ago; “Some people probably believe that kids are always going to drink and that we can’t change public tolerance about teen drinking. But that also used to be true about smoking. People used to smoke in meetings and at work around non-smokers” the official said. “Today it’s unheard of because we were somehow able to change our level of tolerance about this type of substance abuse. It shows that we can do the same thing when it comes to teen drinking.”
Steps for Clarke County
While anecdotal evidence of teen alcohol abuse in Clarke County exists, many people in our community may rightly demand stronger documentation prior to committing the public funding necessary to develop a concerted educational and community response.
Statistical review can be easily performed according to VCU’s Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory Senior Research Associate Dr. Mary A. Moore:
“If Clarke County is ever interested in doing a survey like this just let me know. We have done them for various localities over the years and would be happy to help. Some localities do their own surveys – some use Pride, some YRBS and some use the CTC survey that was done for the CYS.”
In addition to statistical sampling, qualitative assessments are also possible.
In 2006 Loudoun County recruited the assistance of George Mason University to assess the quality of life for Loudoun’s youth through a comprehensive study of county “engagement opportunities”, including recreation, social and cultural opportunities available to young people as well as “healthy living” factors that address both alcohol and drug abuse.
The “Loudoun Youth Study” generated a range of “forward-thinking” initiatives that have since helped guide county supervisors in their decisions regarding youth. A similar study might help Clarke County assess whether it is doing enough to engage county youth in positive activities.
Of course, the most important question may be “Who takes the lead in changing the community response to teen drinking?”
If Clarke County does decide to increase its commitment to preventing teen drinking within its borders, such a community response would almost certainly need to be facilitated by Clarke County’s Board of Supervisors.
Several supervisors interviewed for this article expressed a willingness to provide the needed leadership if the community asks for it.
“In any case, teen drinking will certainly continue to be a matter of great concern in the community, and I am sure the Board of Supervisors stands ready to work with its citizens and community groups to promote a call to action to renew addressing this important effort, as well as to support our Sheriff in his continuing efforts to promote public safety” said one county supervisor.
Another county supervisor responded “However, I feel that if a “summit” were called it should be called by the School Board or Sheriff as they are the ones with the most responsibility of this issue. Also, they are the ones with access to the confidential data that would have to be examined. If such a summit were called I would encourage the Supervisors to support it in any way they could.”