Data backs up need to stem underage drinking

With the end of the school year and graduation right around the corner, there will be more focus on keeping our teens safe from the effects of alcohol.

Much has been said recently about the targeting of underage drinking by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and the Underage Drinking Task Force. Their decision to work to reduce the instance of underage drinking is saving lives, just for a start.

Study after study has shown that underage drinking and binge drinking by teens is at epidemic proportions.

For young people, alcohol is the drug of choice. When youth drink, they are more inclined than adults to drink more, often drinking four to five drinks. There are many reasons, both psychological and physiological, why the drinking habits of youth differ from adults.

The brain and nervous system of teens are still developing. Their ability to perceive pleasure and to make rational decisions is different from adults because of physiology.

Just being a young person makes them at higher risk of drinking dangerously. We all have a role in helping our young people understand that actions have consequences and helping them make good decisions.

Yes, there is a role for the sheriff’s department and the task force.

It’s important to understand what the role of law enforcement is. It’s just that, enforcing the law.

Penalties are set by the court system within guidelines set out by state law.

If the threat of being caught drinking at a party is enough to keep a teen from drinking, then that threat is worth it.

It might just save their life or that of another person.

Zero-tolerance laws do work to reduce underage drinking. As states were passing zero-tolerance laws, studies showed that those states that enacted zero-tolerance laws had lower rates of underage drinking and driving than those that had not enacted zero-tolerance laws.

Now all 50 states have zero-tolerance laws that make it illegal to drink if you are under 21 years of age.

Teens who drink are at greater risk engaging in risky sexual behavior, of having poor performance in school, of being in automobile accidents and of developing an alcohol dependence later in life.

With some, it only takes the first drink. It can take only one bad decision to change lives forever.

What can we do? Zero-tolerance laws are a start, and having law enforcement enforce the law, especially when groups of teens are engaging in drinking, does work.

Our schools are stepping up and having comprehensive programs to educate teens about the consequences of drinking and driving.

Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse (NASA) is doing an outstanding job with programming, working with our students to help them make good decisions.

And last but certainly not least are our parents. The role that parents should be playing cannot be overemphasized.

Most are stepping up, but some are not, and unfortunately, we sometimes see the tragic consequences.

In the 2013 and 2014 surveys of Hancock County schools on the use of alcohol and binge drinking by students, we see interesting data.

There is some good news. When the survey was taken, students reported whether they had consumed alcohol or engaged in binge drinking within the past two weeks. The latest survey showed Hancock County students below both the state and national levels.

The bad news is that still a significant percentage of students reporting they had engaged in these activities within the past two weeks.

Consistently, the data shows a decrease in consuming alcohol and binge drinking by high school students in 2014 compared with 2013.

We can’t with certainty point to a single reason, but it is likely that a combination of awareness activities was at work.

Data from 2013 shows that 34 percent of 12th-grade students in Hancock County schools consumed alcohol, while that number dropped to 22 percent in 2014.

Binge drinking showed similar results. Disturbing is that in 2013, almost 15 percent of ninth-graders had consumed alcohol within the past two weeks. That dropped to about 11 percent in 2014, and that is still way too high.

Hancock County’s Underage Drinking Task Force is making progress in reducing underage drinking. It includes all of our school corporations, state and local law enforcement agencies, and our judicial system offices.

Our parents, citizens and elected officials need to provide support for our task force and work to continue the trend we have seen in the past year.

Beverly Gard served 24 years in the Indiana Senate before retiring in 2012. She is a Hancock County resident.