Town hall meeting aimed at stemming underage drinking

    As part of Alcohol Awareness Month, a four-person panel of experts addressed a crowd of community members on the dangers of underage drinking at a town hall-style meeting of the Substance Abuse Awareness Council (SAAC) Wednesday at Riverside Center.
    Ben Fenstermaker, an officer with the Indiana State Excise Police, explained that the primary job of the excise police is to enforce the laws and rules for drinking. He explained that there are currently two grant-funded programs in place to help reduce the number of underage drinking offenses.
    Intensified College Enforcement (ICE) is a program that enables excise police officers to focus on reducing underage drinking at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ball State University in Muncie and DePauw University in Greencastle. Their priorities on these campuses include reducing the following: illegal possession and consumption of alcohol, furnishing alcohol to minors, possession and use of false IDs, operating while intoxicated and related offenses.
    Fenstermaker said that during warmer months it is not uncommon to see 100-plus students arrested on a Saturday night. He added that underage drinking sometimes leads to violence such as fighting or vandalism.
    Survey for Alcohol Compliance (SAC) is a program conducted by the excise police to evaluate the availability of alcoholic beverages to people under the age of 21. This is often done as an undercover operation. Fenstermaker said the program has been very successful, with a 90-95 percent success rate in this district. "We're seeing a lot of positive results from it," he said.
    Superintendent of North Adams Schools Dr. Wylie Sirk said it is important to instruct kids early about the consequences of underage drinking.
    Sirk said North Adams is working cooperatively with officials and departments within the county "to offer programs designed to help students make better choices for themselves." Many of the alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs are made possible through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant awarded to Adams County in 2008.
    The superintendent said there has been a decline in students reporting alcohol usage on anonymous questionnaires in grades 6-12 at all three school districts. "Our efforts are seeing some rewards," he said.
    Tom Fox, chief probation officer at the Adams County Probation Department, said that of the 500 adults and youth currently on probation, two-thirds have drug or alcohol problems. He added that of the youth, "minor consuming is the top problem."
    Fox said, "The purpose of probation is to help people make good choices."
    Panelist Tonya Eiden, director of Park Center, said even before kids start kindergarten, they have already formed an opinion about alcohol use. She added that the children who are more at risk of using alcohol are struggling in school or have a family member who has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Some studies say that susceptibility to alcohol abuse may be chromosome-related.
    Eiden noted that raising the price of alcohol and increasing the legal drinking age to 21 have proven to be effective methods for deterring underage drinking. She added that educational programs are helpful and also, in some cases, family interventions.
    After the presentations from the panel, SAAC Executive Director Kelly Sickafoose presented statistics on underage drinking, including:
    — More young people use alcohol than any other drug, including tobacco or marijuana.
    — The peak period of first alcohol use is in 7th-10th grades. Ten percent of nine- 10-year-olds have already started drinking.
    — The most likely place where underage drinking occurs is at the child's home or at the home of the child's friend.
    Sickafoose said that the SAAC holds monthly coalition meetings, partnership meetings, and youth round tables and is visible at other community events such as parades and festivals.