Some passionate citizens gathered Thursday night for a town hall meeting. The topic? Underage drinking in Bulloch County, and how to stop it.
Local law enforcement officers, school teachers, alcohol recovery counselors and more filled the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation's Honey Bowen building. About 100 people listened to information about the problem, then asked questions such as how to tell if a teenager is drinking, and how to talk to underage youth about making responsible choices.
The main gist of the meeting was that parents must take an active role in helping the community deal with and eliminate underage drinking.
"Unleash what we have to do in the community," said Statesboro Police Chief Stan York, who was often very passionate in his comments to the group. "As parents, don't try to blame other people for your responsibility as a parent."
York emphasized that while law enforcement can pursue and prosecute underage drinkers; while school officials can promote the message that underage drinking is dangerous; and while special programs can try to discourage those under 21 to not drink, it is ultimately parental involvement that is needed to get the message across.
Georgia Southern University student Joshua Hale spoke about his alcoholism, giving a face to the problem. Hale, who is involved in local alcohol recovery programs and a leader with a men's halfway house, told the group he tasted his first sip of alcohol at age 7.
Growing up in Kentucky, with a father that was his elementary school principal and a mother who was a teacher, Hale never had a problem getting alcohol or hiding it from his parents, he said. "It was no trouble at all to find it. I enjoyed it." He said he went through programs like DARE in school, but "when I got my first buzz, all that went out the window. I loved it."
Hale told of the emotional tortures that come with addiction, including the pain it caused his family. He went through recovery programs at Willingway, but the first time failed. He returned after realizing his addiction controlled him - and he was frightened.
Hale has now been sober for more than two years, he said.
Joy Hamm, assistant dean of students at GSU, spoke about statistics.
"Alcohol is the drug of choice among America's adolescents," she said. Young people under 21 are drinking more than most adults, and most are binge drinking - five or more drinks at a time, she said.
Hamm said surveys show between 45 and 50 percent of high school students admit to have consumed alcohol within the past 30 days, and said 52 percent of incoming freshmen at GSU admitted in surveys that they were already actively drinking - debunking a common theory that coming to GSU, which she said has a reputation as a party school, exposes students to their first drinking experience.
Hamm talked about how underage youth obtain alcohol - through adults in their lives. She also spoke about consequences of binge drinking - death, risky sexual behavior, academic failure, association with illicit drug abuse, legal issues and other problems.
But, community involvement, especially on the home level, can combat the problem, she said.
"This is not a hopeless situation," she said. "There are things that can be done." Families, friends, schools and the youth's environment can be the biggest influence, she said.
Ron Huckaby, Special Agent in Charge with the Savannah office of the Georgia Department of Revenue Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division, spoke as well, talking about how his office holds compliance checks. He and York both spoke about law enforcement roles, but stressed that stopping underage drinking begins in the home.
York recommended keeping close tabs on teens, asking questions and knowing where your children are. He demonstrated a method oh Southeast Bulloch High School student Jerika Budgett, 17, by hugging her with her face next to his, showing how easy a surreptitious show of affection can help detect the odor of alcohol. He also suggested using police field sobriety exercises if a parent suspects a child has been drinking.
"We can only (combat underage drinking) with your help - your eyes, your ears, and by telling us (about suspected underage drinking at parties or sales of alcohol to underage youth.)"
Budgett spoke about how most of her friends drink, and said often school teachers and coaches are aware of students coming to school hung over or possibly under the influence, but do nothing. When asked why the school officials do not report these incidents, she shrugged and said “They don't care."
Several members of the audience asked questions of panelists, further discussing the underage drinking issue, but all questions led back to the idea that parental involvement is the key to battling the underage drinking issue.
Several community leaders attended the meeting, including staff from Pineland Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Substance Abuse center, Willingway Hospital, Statesboro Mayor Joe Brannen, Boys and Girls Club director Mike Backus, and Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard.