A 2009 Chicago Magazine article on substance use and issues facing Chicago-area teens prompted many parents and community leaders to take a closer look at what our teens were saying. In addition to high rates of alcohol use many students referred to the school as “Smoke Park Reefer Forest” due to the prevalence of marijuana use among students. The 2018 Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) reported in the past thirty days at OPRF High School 23% of sophomores and 44% of seniors surveyed reported drinking alcohol, and 20% of sophomores and 38% of seniors reported using marijuana. 

Local people solve local problems best! “As a recipient of the Strategic Prevention Framework- Partnership for Success grant through the Illinois Department of Human Services and the federal Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, Oak Park Township is providing our community with a model for how best to address issues affecting our youth. Working with all of our community partners to focus on underage drinking and substance use has proved to be successful as we continue to see positive results. Oak Park Township is committed to continuing the work of the coalition, +PYD as well as expanding its prevention efforts through education and support.” said Clarmarie Keenan, Township Supervisor.

Kelly O’Connor, Prevention Services Manager for the Township, notes parent groups originally took the lead in youth prevention services in the village during the 1980’s and 1990’s. New generations of parents got involved when OPRF High School hosted parent forums to discuss the results of the Illinois Youth Survey. O’Connor says that PYD’s work is in response to community-wide concerns about local statistics, which indicate youth alcohol and substance use rates in Oak Park and River Forest are above their state peers’.

PYD is a coalition of parents, educators, law enforcement officials and many youth-serving organizations whose focus is to educate and inform the community. The group offers practical insight and guidance to inform the Township’s identification and implementation of prevention strategies that support youth in making choices that lead to healthy, alcohol-free lives.

Carla Sloan, River Forest Township Supervisor, sees a benefit to bringing multiple stakeholders together with a shared focus. “Positive Youth Development is a leader in bringing together a wide range of community partners to address underage substance use. Schools, parents, local officials, police, retail establishments…all have joined together under the PYD umbrella to look at the trends and root causes of substance use among our youth and develop ways to address this growing issue. Engaging in this teamwork continues to be an effective and rewarding experience.”

Why is alcohol use among teens so prevalent? O’Connor says the kids report it is a permissive attitude taken by parents and perceived by teens. The 2016 IYS showed 45% of OPRF seniors surveyed perceived that most adults in their neighborhood thought it was acceptable for kids underage to drink alcohol. In the same year, 38% of OPRF eighth through twelfth graders who reported drinking, reported getting the alcohol from their parents. PYD is using Parent and Youth Communication campaigns, Youth Prevention Education classes, and Liquor license compliance checks in hopes to reduce underage drinking and permissive attitudes across the community.

From after-prom parties or more casual weekend gatherings, local teens report having easy access to alcohol in their homes and say that alcohol is sometimes provided by parents at events and that parents turn a blind eye toward teen drinking. Many parents do not consider the consequences or the illegality of underage drinking or social hosting.

O’Connor says while the numbers are moving down, we still have a lot of work to do. “Our rates have been high and educating ourselves on the connection between mental health and substance use can help us make informed, data driven decisions to support the youth in our community.”

Dr. Ed Condon, Superintendent of River Forest District 90 praises the progress made to date and looks forward to the continued work of PYD. “The efforts of the OPRF Workgroup for Positive Youth Development are so powerful because they are engaging a diverse team of community-minded individuals to focus intentionally on the needs of the young people in our midst.  Ensuring that our youth have the space and encouragement to make positive and affirming choices is one of the highest callings for our community.  For one, I am very grateful to know that there is such a dedicated and strategic group of individuals willing to pursue practical and impactful solutions to substance use issues affecting our children.”

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