As the temperatures rise and senioritis spreads to the lower grades, the rumors of parties blossom along with the dogwoods and azaleas.
It's that time of year when strolls along Bolin Creek or any secluded area might be decorated with the litter of teen parties. Tell tale signs include empty Redi-whip cans, bottles of mouthwash or cough syrup -- and of course empty adult beverage containers.
"Kids will be kids," adults have said forever, accepting the norm of teen drinking and drug abusing.
But in this community, Dale Pratt-Wilson has found a way to bend that norm -- and maybe even, within a few years, completely eclipse the rites of passage teens consider their entree into the world of alcohol.
|2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey|
Chapel Hill-Carrboro findings
46.7 percent: High school students who drank alcohol.
25.3 percent: High school students engaged in binge drinking.
18 percent and 19.7 percent: High school and middle school students, respectively, who had their first drink at age 12 or younger.
26.8 percent and 24 percent: High school and middle school students, respectively, who rode in a car with someone who had been drinking.
19.3 percent and 6 percent: High school and middle school students, respectively, who smoked marijuana.
The alarming sight of 200 kids scattering from an apartment where four beer kegs had been supplemented with pot was punctuated by the ages of the party guests.
"These were the faces of young children," she said. "They were middle and high schoolers."
More alarming was what happened next -- nothing.
"The police at that time didn't do anything," she said. "The kids just left."
She had plenty of anger to go around, starting with the parents who had rented the apartment so their son could play football at East Chapel Hill High School. But she directed most of her heat at the Chapel Hill Police Department.
She sat down with Police Chief Gregg Jarvies and left that meeting with a new question: Did the community of Chapel Hill not really care about this?
She recognized that she was dealing with deeply rooted societal norms.
"It used to be that people drove and drank," Pratt-Wilson said. Then MADD came along and laws were tightened.
"The new norm is: Drink and don't drive," she said. But that's not good enough when speaking of our children. "They're still in danger -- of alcohol poisoning, suicide, homicide, rape, unprotected sex," and general out-of-control behavior, she said.
Armed with state and federal grants, she started the Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Teenagers of Chapel Hill and Carrboro (CADFT), and in 2005 she helped conduct a survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control among 2,783 high school and 774 middle school students. The results tallied their behavior during the 30 days prior to the survey (see box).
Using the survey findings, she started the Safe Homes Network, a project endorsed by the local school system and police departments. Parents who sign the Safe Homes Network pledge are listed in a directory, which other parents can view on-line to help them feel confident that their child can visit that home without fear that drinking or drug use will be allowed there.
So far, nearly 300 parents have signed the pledge she started circulating in mid-February.
Pratt-Wilson, however, has a goal of 6,300 -- that's roughly every home with a middle- or high school-aged child in the district.
"Five years ago a concerned group of parents tried the pledge and 12 people signed up," Pratt-Wilson said. "The community has changed a little bit.
Carole Groux, who moved here in August, is among those happy for the change. As a family counselor, Groux understands the impact of drug use on children and families.
"We have to clean up the environment," she said. "We need to reduce the number of parties and number of places where kids hang out and do those things. It's the way to keep all children safer."
The responsibility falls where it should -- to the parents.
"Parents need to have high expectations and great consequences," Groux said. "If there are 40 wild parties this year, maybe in a year or two there will only be 10," if parents make the pledge and keep to it.
"One of the greatest things we can do is keep our children off alcohol and drugs, because of the damage that it causes to their brains and the increased risk of dependence and addiction," Groux said.
She cited recent national research findings that indicate that children who begin substance abuse at 13 have a 40 percent risk of becoming dependent.
"If a child starts experimenting at 13, by the time they're 15 they're changing the wiring of their brain," she said. "If they can wait until 21 they reduce the risk (of dependence) to 10 percent."
Kerry Brandewie, a Lake Hogan Farms neighbor of Groux's, has a child in the 7th grade at McDougle Middle School. She wants to make a difference in middle school students' expectations about drinking in high school through the Safe Homes Network.
"I hope we can get it started in middle schools, where there's more control, and make it the norm that it's not acceptable -- that parties do not include alcohol and drug use," Brandewie said. "So, when they get to high school, they'll be accustomed to the expectation of their parents and the community -- that drugs and alcohol are not involved in parties."
"She's a breath of fresh air," Vickie Mendes said of Pratt-Wilson. "For her to have done what she's done to this point is wonderful."
Mendes has 9th-grade twins.
"They know kids who smoke and drink. It's too bad that they're doing that at this age," she said. "Luckily, I have good kids and I trust them but I know these influences are all around them."
When her children were in middle school, she said, she knew their friends and their friends' parents. But high school is a different story.
"It's real scary," she said. "Kids think that the norm is they will be drinking by the time they're juniors. They think that's so old. We really do have to change that."
Matt Sullivan, a police crisis counselor with the Chapel Hill Police Department, is confident that things are changing.
"Safe Homes Network is so encouraging to me," he said. "It supports the visual representation of parents united. That's a prong we've been missing for a long time around here. My first belief is that if parents talk to each other and stand unified on a non-using front, that goes a long way in preventing adolescent substance abuse. A lot of parents care and feel they're isolated in their perspective. Safe Homes proves they're not.
"Dale has really taken this issue by the horns," Sullivan said.
"What I admire about Dale is that in spite of a community that didn't readily pick up the message, she kept it out there. She's got more people talking about the issue."
There will be a parent information meeting on substance and technology risks at 7 p.m. April 25 at East Chapel Hill High School -- just before the proms.
For more on Safe Homes Network and to sign the pledge, see: http://www.CADFT.org.