Educators looks for ways to draw teens' attention to issue

Sunday, March 9, 2003

If anything positive is to come of the Jan. 18 bonfire explosion that injured 14 minors at a rural Cape Girardeau County party, it's that parents now have an opening to talk about underage drinking with their children, said Jackson public schools educator Sam Duncan.

"Sometimes it takes something drastic to get our attention," Duncan said. "But there are groups here working continuously to fight drug and alcohol use by minors."

Duncan uses education and activities to motivate minors to make wiser decisions regarding alcohol. He's Jackson public schools' director of federal programs and coordinator of the Community Safe and Drug Free Schools Advisory Council.

"We have always said alcohol is our biggest drug problem," Duncan said. "That's no secret."

That's what educators and consciencious students across Southeast Missouri say. They're doing what they can to fill in at school what parents may be skipping at home: tough talk about the effects of alcohol. Sometimes the setting is formal, other times it is through casual peer counseling in groups such as Students Against Driving Drunk

In Jackson, the Community Safe and Drug Free Schools Advisory Council meets monthly and holds a fall and a spring meal for students. It also sponsors a Christmas parade float, a graduation party, student groups and several activities designed to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

But it takes more than a volunteer effort to curb underage drinking, he said.

"This is bigger than us," Duncan said. "We're very serious about this and it's one of our goals to see that it does not happen. I certainly wish we had the answers."

Knowing some students don't care about the risks doesn't daunt educators like Robin Gross, a health and physical education teacher at Central High School in Cape Girardeau. She teaches a mandatory health class to all 10th grade students. The first semester includes information about the risks of alcohol.

Gross uses guest speakers, videos and role-playing to bring something new to a topic many teens believe they already understand. She's been thanked by former students for teaching them skills they can use to make better decisions about sex, drugs and alcohol.

"The way I look at it is, if I can save anybody, I've done some good," she said. "You have to realize you are not going to reach everybody."

It isn't a shortage of responsible parents that causes underage drinking, she said.

"I think there's both kinds of parents out there," Gross said. "I've seen very responsible parents and those who aren't very proactive in their child's life. I have a ninth-grader, and I trust her and think she's a responsible young person. But if she wanted to do something bad enough, she could find a way to do it."

The bonfire explosion may make some teens think more critically about where they socialize and with whom, she said.

"Hopefully, it raised awareness," Gross said. "Because until something like this jumps out at you, you don't really think about it. This forced it to come to the front of the news."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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