Town hall meeting addresses the rise of youth alcohol use

People of all ages gathered Tuesday night in Bemidji for a town hall meeting to discuss the rise of alcohol use among local youth and how the community can change this trend.

People of all ages gathered Tuesday night in Bemidji for a town hall meeting to discuss the rise of alcohol use among local youth and how the community can change this trend.

About 40 people attended the town hall meeting at the Hampton Inn & Suites. The meeting was sponsored by Healthy Community Healthy Kids; the Bemidji Area Task Force on Underage Drinking, Drugs and Gang Activity; and the Bemidji Youth Advisory Commission.

According to HCHK Director Carol A. Johnson, the meeting was held in response to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's request that all Minnesota communities host a town meeting Tuesday to address the increased use of alcohol among teenagers. Similar town hall meetings were also held across the nation Tuesday.

The 2004 Minnesota Student Survey showed that 63 percent of high school seniors and 43 percent of high school freshmen admitted to consuming alcohol in the past year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The survey also showed that 30 percent of seniors and 15 percent of freshmen reported binge drinking - five or more drinks consecutively - in the preceding two weeks.

Also, a 2004 Search Institute Survey of 2,129 students in grades 6-12 at seven Bemidji area schools showed that the percentages of those saying they used alcohol once or more in the past 30 days included 27 percent of eighth-graders, 41 percent of sophomores and 51 percent of seniors.


At Tuesday night's town hall meeting in Bemidji, 10 panelists from a cross-section of the community shared their insights into the rise of alcohol use among local youth.

One panelist, Tam Mahaffey, a nurse practitioner and director of Northern Medical Clinic, spoke about the physical impact alcohol has on youth.

"This is not just a social problem," she said.

Rudy and Maria Trevino, family practice physicians who work for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in the area of addiction, also spoke about the use of alcohol among youth.

"The problem is that it is a gateway type of drug," Maria Trevino said.

And, she said, most people are introduced to alcohol by family members, friends or other peers.

Her husband added that the community must ask why alcohol use is up among youth.

Bemidji High School senior Nyki Kilde said solutions to the rise in youth alcohol use should involve youth input.


"I think that, in my perspective, it's very important to have youth involvement," she said.

She stressed the important of youth getting involved in positive activities in the community at an early age to prevent falling through the cracks.

"And I think that's going to stop a lot of future alcohol and drug use," Kilde said.

Another panelist, BHS senior Andrew Johnson, spoke about the prevalence of alcohol use among local youth.

"We see it a lot," he said. "It's there. It's the thing to do on Friday night. It's the thing to do on Saturday night."

And, he added, it's even the thing to do on Sunday night.

"It's on the rise," he said.

"Primarily, what I recognize is an identity crisis," said Steve Hanson, director of Timber Bay.


He said youth who don't find their identity through their family structure at home will shop for one elsewhere.

"It's critical they fit in," Hanson said.

He said the tragedy is that alcohol is almost always available to youth in the Bemidji area and elsewhere.

Safe and Drug-Free Schools Coordinator Jennifer Kovach of the Bemidji School District said it's important for the community to address every reason youth use alcohol.

"Young people use for many different reasons," she said.

Some reasons, she added, include boredom, self-medication for mental health issues, curiosity and peer pressure.

Also on the panel was Amber Russ, a Bemidji State University student who is a member of the campus organization called We Already Made Mistakes. WAMM is a group of upper-class students who share positive messages about college life. She noted that it's important for students tell other students that abusing alcohol is not acceptable.

Jay Passa, Student Health Services health education coordinator at BSU, said the university offers a comprehensive alcohol and drug prevention program.


He noted that BSU's prevention efforts differ from the efforts at a high school.

"We're dealing with many students of drinking age," said Passa, adding that BSU's alcohol education program focuses on teaching safer and smarter drinking.

Bemidji Police Officer Jon Hunt, who is a D.A.R.E. coordinator and school resource officer at Bemidji Middle School and St. Philips School, also spoke as a panelist. He shared a few of the legal consequences minors face if they are caught using alcohol, including the potential of them getting their driver's licenses suspended.

He said law enforcement plays a role in opening the eyes of youth who use alcohol and their parents to realize the seriousness of the behavior and the need to curb the problem.

After the panelists gave their comments Tuesday night, the audience members had the opportunity to ask them questions. The panelists and audience members then took a few minutes to share some of the positive efforts already occurring in the community and suggestions for the future.

"On a positive note, there are some incredible young people in this community," said Jeremy Langmade, a volunteer assistant football coach at BHS and youth pastor at First Assembly of God in Bemidji. "We are blessed to have a lot of great kids."

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