A forum on teen drug and alcohol use was a real eye opener for Oak Park parent Nancy Guarino.
Guarino learned that the prevalence of marijuana use among middle-schoolers was much lower than parents expected. And she was "shocked" to discover that access to alcohol came from an unlikely place: parents in their own homes, not from a liquor store.
"I never would have thought the liquor cabinet," said Guarino, the mother of a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old.
She assumed that teens used fake IDs or asked older siblings to buy alcohol. And she was not alone in her assumptions. Nearly 90 parents attended the Monday forum on drug and alcohol use among Oak Park middle-schoolers. Most had some of their notions turned upside down when it comes to teens and drugs. The forum took place at Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth, and was sponsored by Oak Park Elementary School District 97, and the middle school action committee of the Citizens' Council, a volunteer group of OPRF High School parents and community members.
Monday's event was part of an ongoing series on drug prevention education programs for both parents and students.
The interactive forum tested parents' knowledge about teen alcohol and marijuana use. Using a remote control-style clicker, a few parents answered a set of true or false questions, ranging from the addictiveness of marijuana to the accessibility of alcohol. Parents' answers were compared side-by-side to those of students who took the same survey prior to Monday's forum.
Dist. 97 Superintendent Albert Roberts said substance abuse is not a big problem at the middle school. He recalled only one incident where a student became "involved" in substance abuse. Roberts would not go into detail, but he stated that one incident is too many.
The forum's goal, he explained, was to give parents and students the "information and tools they need" to avoid risky behavior that could lead to substance abuse.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said, adding that prevention begins with parents.
But the interactive survey was more than just debunking myths and providing information to parents, said Helen Chang, a Julian Middle School health teacher and committee member. The effort, she added, was to give parents an opportunity to have a conversation with their teens.
"We wanted strategies for parents to use to talk with their kids," Chang said. "We know the number one prevention is you being able to talk with your children and for them to be able to come and talk to you."
Oak Park Police Commander Keenan Williams echoed Chang's sentiment. But he added that parents must "get their heads out of the sand" when it comes to underage drinking in Oak Park. Williams insisted that people are more aware that smoking, drinking and drug use by minors is happening.
In 2009, the department arrested 21 youths for drug law violations. In 2010, that number increased to 36. So far this year, there have been six arrests for drug violations.
Williams encouraged parents to trust their instincts if they suspect their child is using drugs.
"Chances are your intuitions are correct," he said, urging parents to not dismiss mood swings, tiredness or a hearty appetite as "normal adolescence" angst.
"Be a detective. Be snoopy. Kids don't like it, but it is the only way," he said. "Someone in that household has to be the adult."
John Williams, director of Oak Park Township Youth Services, contends an attitude shift is needed on how residents view drug and alcohol use. When he first came to the Oak Park in 1989, the community had a relaxed view of drug and alcohol use, he recalled, earning the townships the nickname "Toke Park and Reefer Forest."
"That cultural of acceptance of illegal drug use ... and illegal drug use by minors ... has to change," Williams said. "I think that is the hard work. People have to change their behavior; and the way you change behavior is change your belief system."
Oak Park has several initiatives to assist parents and students in grappling with substance-abuse issues. A new pilot program called Face It offers substance-abuse education and intervention to students and their families. The ongoing Citizens Council-sponsored "parent cafes" allow families to candidly address substance-abuse issues.
There are simple things parents can do to minimize youth exposure to illicit substances, Williams said — eating dinner together is one. The others include turning off the television, being aware of a teen's academic performance, imposing a weekend curfew, and assigning regular chores.
The forum was helpful for Guarino. She said conversations about substance abuse in her home are sporadic and often triggered by news events. Now, she plans to have more dialogue about the issue.
"It makes you review what you are doing," Guarino said.