Portsmouth panelists tackle underage drinking

This graphic from the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition’s latest substance abuse needs assessment survey shows the percentage of students who indicated they consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.

PORTSMOUTH — Underage alcohol use is on the rise in Portsmouth and social media is making it easier than ever for kids to find a drinking party, Portsmouth police representatives told a gathering at Town Hall Wednesday.

The Portsmouth Prevention Coalition hosted the community discussion on underage drinking that was led by six panelists. Alcohol is the most abused substance by youth in this town, according to two comprehensive needs assessment surveys the Coalition conducted this year and in 2013.

According to Police Chief Thomas Lee, one of the panelists, the number of alcohol-related offenses in Portsmouth has gone from 22 in 2011, to 30 in 2012 and 49 in 2013.

The number of underage possession of alcohol charges has gone from seven in 20122, to 11 in 2012 and 16 in 2013. There have already been 12 underage possession of alcohol arrests in 2014, Chief Lee said.

“We’re seeing an increase,” he said.

Michael Morris, the police department’s juvenile detective, said social media tools such as Facebook — only a decade old but now with 1 billion users — have been game-changers for kids who are organizing and coordinating drinking parties. And, since most kids now have smart phones, they can do all this on the fly and away from parents’ prying eyes, he said.

“Years ago without social media, kids weren’t able to connect to as many kids as they are now,” said Det. Morris. “Smart phones definitely make it easier for them to find a drinking party.”

He urged parents to become more computer literate, make rules for internet use and consider shared accounts. Parents should know who their kids are talking to online and urge them never to arrange face-to-face meetings with strangers. Children should also know that everything they post online stays online, he said.

Kelly O’Loughlin, student assistance counselor at Portsmouth High School who serves at the school’s liaison to the Coalition, said social media presents a huge opportunity for parents to see what their kids are up to. “Kids really do post everything,” said Ms. O’Loughlin, who also urged parents to make time for discussions with their children.

“Those family dinners are super important,” she said.

‘Main drug of choice’

Ray Davis, coordinator of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, said the group wanted to focus the community meeting on underage drinking because alcohol “is the main drug of choice by the adolescents in Portsmouth.” It’s also a big problem statewide, he said, as Rhode Island “is ranked number five for underage drinking in the country.”

However, he said, the Coalition was by no means downplaying the seriousness of adolescents’ abuse of other substances such as marijuana, he said.

According to the results of the Coalition’s most recent survey of 929 student respondents in grades 7 through 12, more than 40 percent of pupils in those grades said they use alcohol. That number jumps to 65 percent for students in grades 11 and 12, he said.

Most students (65 percent) said they started drinking between the ages of 13 and 16, while 20 percent said they started at age 10 or younger, said Mr. Davis, adding that the age of onset is a critical factor in preventing substance abuse.

“The later we can delay those things with children, the greater chance they will not have problems with those substances down the road,” he said.

As for where kids are getting alcohol, it’s usually at parties or from friends. Twenty percent of the students surveyed said “some other way,” said Mr. Davis. “In other words, ‘I’m not telling you.’”

Very few kids are getting liquor from local package stores, he said. “We have had a very low instance of sales to minors by the package stores in Portsmouth for a number of years, as well as in Little Compton and Tiverton,” he said.

Chief Lee agreed. During prom and graduation week, he said, police paid kids $20 to do “shoulder taps” and ask adults to buy alcohol for them at liquor stores.

“No one bought for them,” he said, adding that compliance checks at local bars that week also turned up no violations.

‘Conspire to help us’

Cort Chappell, Portsmouth’s prosecuting attorney, normally handles misdemeanors for people 18 and older, so he often deals with PHS seniors during the second half of the school year as well as Roger Williams University students.

Mr. Chappell said he’s often brought into PHS “as the hired gun to threaten the children” with the consequences of getting caught with illegal substances. However, “as the (police) chief said, we’re not out to hurt anyone,” he said, noting that most parents work hard to make sure their kids go off to college “with a clean record.”

If parents “conspire to help us,” he said, the prosecution can work to get charges against a young offender expunged — usually through a $150 “contribution” and 20 hours of community service — provided they don’t get into any more trouble, Mr. Chappell said.

“Junior picking up poop at the Potter Shelter or stuff at the beach makes a difference,” he said.

It’s important for parents to realize that even the “good kids” can alter their lives forever by making just one mistake with alcohol, he said.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to visit my child at the ACI for the next 10 years,” he said. “It takes one second and it doesn’t matter if you’re a judge, a doctor, a lawyer or a valedictorian.”

That point was also hammered home by Gabrielle Abbate, executive director of Rhode Island Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“When someone says, ‘I never thought it could happen to me,’ I always think, Why did you think that?” she said. “It doesn’t discriminate. It’s an intriguing problem which is 100 percent preventable.”

To view the Portsmouth Prevention Coalitions’ 2013-2014 substance abuse needs assessment survey, click here.

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