Thursday, April 18, 2002

Denial adds to drug problem in Cape Elizabeth

Published in the Current

While anecdotal evidence and a two-year-old survey confirm that Cape teens are keeping up with national statistics when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, local police, counselors and educators says it’s tough to get parents concerned about the problem.

“The kids like to party, just like they do in other communities,” said police Detective Paul Fenton. He has no hard data, but senses that half of the students at the high school have used marijuana or alcohol.

He gets his numbers from anecdotes and interviews of teens he catches with drugs or alcohol. But kids don’t talk much. “They don’t want to rat their friends out,” Fenton said.

He said marijuana is used more than alcohol, because it is easier to get. And, he said, in the past six months the town has seen a “huge influx” of other drugs, including OxyContin, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and abuse of

“Heroin is in Cape Elizabeth. It’s a fact,” Fenton said.

There are teens who are doing heroin in town, and it’s not just school drop-outs. It’s kids who are doing well, Fenton said.

All the kids in town have a lot of pressure, to work hard in school and do well in athletics, Fenton said. When they go out, they want to escape. So drug users are not just kids you might stereotypically expect to be on drugs, he said.

“There are the kids that are, quote-unquote, the perfect kid,” Fenton said.

As a result of the drug problem, crime has increased a bit, including a Jan. 6 spree of vehicle, garage and shed break-ins in the Scott Dyer Road and Brentwood area. There is even some small-scale drug dealing in town, Fenton said. Some kids come to Cape to buy drugs, while others from Cape go elsewhere, like Portland.

If parents want to find out if their kids may be drinking, Fenton suggested a quick look at their kids’ wallets. Many kids in town, he said, carry fake IDs right next to their own real IDs.

A survey of sophomores done two years ago – the most recent numbers available – back up what Fenton says.

According to the “Monitoring the Future” survey, done by the University of Michigan, nearly 80 percent of the respondents had taken at least one drink in the previous 12 months, and one-third had consumed alcoholic beverages 10 or more times.

Further, nearly 37 percent of the respondents had been “drunk or very high from drinking alcoholic beverages during the last 30 days.”

Ninety-three percent of students felt alcohol was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get.

And while 59 percent of the students had not used marijuana or hashish in the 12 months preceding the survey, 19 percent had used the drug 10 or more times in that period, and 24.8 percent had used marijuana in their lifetimes, with 85.8 percent of the students thinking marijuana was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get.

As for other drugs, 27.7 percent had used at least one illicit drug other than marijuana. And 39.6 percent of students said someone had offered to sell or give them an illegal drug while at school, in the previous 12 months.

But surveys can be a challenge to undertake and when the results come back.

“There’s this denial of any issues,” said Terry Johnson, co-chair of the Cape Community Coalition, which works to help teens feel more connected to the community, through group discussions and student-tostudent mentoring programs.

“Doing these surveys can be very problematic for the schools,” he said, pointing to schools in other states that have been sued for doing a survey.

“Fear drives people to not do these things,” Johnson said. “Nobody wants to admit there’s a problem.”

But sticking the town’s collective head in the sand, he said, is not a good idea.

“That whole denial piece is really contributing to the problem,” Johnson said. That’s true not just in Cape Elizabeth, but throughout Maine and the nation.

Parents often know
Parents play a big role in enabling teen drinking, according to both kids and police. This poses problems with the law, responsibility and behavior modeling.

Some parents prefer that their children drink at home, presuming that their houses are safer than other places kids would find to drink. But police say parents sometimes come home to find several thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry or other possessions missing.

And even if parents are away when a party occurs, liability for accidents—including car crashes after people leave the party—rests with the homeowner.

“You are responsible, even though you’re not present,” said Officer Paul Gaspar.

If parents leave kids at home, they should come to the police station and sign a form giving police permission to enter their homes if there is anything suspicious going on.

Without that authorization, police who get turned away at the door to a house by a partying teen-ager can’t break up the party.

Parties in the woods can be hard to track down without help from the neighbors who call to report them. When police do find and break up a party, parental cooperation is necessary but sometimes hard to get.

When the police call and say their kid has been caught with alcohol, parents will try to get a summons dropped, saying they teach their kid to “drink responsibly,” Fenton said.

But when the same kid gets a speeding ticket, he said, parents don’t try to get their kid out of trouble by saying they teach their kids to “drive responsibly.”

It’s a double standard that is dangerous for parents and for kids, he said.

When cops tell parents what the kids are doing, parents don’t believe it. But, Fenton said, they should. “I have no reason to lie,” he said.

When he warns parents, he’s helping them catch a problem before it becomes big, not criticizing them for being bad parents, he said.

And parents who fight back against drug and alcohol use among kids become a minority. “There seems to be some social stigma with doing the right thing,” Gaspar said.

They get in bickering matches about who actually brought the bottle of booze the kids were caught with. That misses the point, Gaspar said. “They don’t say, ‘One of our kids had booze and they both hang out together.’”

Parents not stepping up to the plate can be a big problem, he said. They don’t always ask questions or call other parents to verify their kids’ plans.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t trust your kid,” Gaspar said.

And, he pointed out, kids do lie. They follow the example adults set for them. When they see their parents lie, or encounter some parents who use drugs and alcohol with kids, the ethical picture becomes cloudy.

The bigger picture, Gaspar said, is that there is a cultural desensitization to teen-age drinking. Adults set an example, he said. They drink at the office Christmas party and then drive home.

Wanting kids to have friends and be part of the “in crowd” can also take its toll, especially if parents reinforce cliquish behavior. “Even the parents will buy into that,” Fenton said.

Cape teens, according to Johnson of the Cape Coalition, have problems feeling valued if they’re not in sports or on the honor roll, but Johnson said it’s easy to help. “Know the kids in your neighborhood. Say ‘hi’ to them on the street,” he said.

And develop a support structure for parents who will report incidents to police.

“You need to develop accepted codes of conduct for parents,” Johnson said. Parents are sometimes nervous to create tension between neighbors or friends by calling the police.

“A parent doesn’t want to take action because of how other kids will treat their kids at school,” Johnson said.

School efforts
Adults in the schools also struggle with drug and alcohol use. It is less obvious in Cape schools than in other communities, but no less a concern.

At other high schools where Principal Jeff Shedd has worked, he would walk down the hall and now and again smell marijuana on a student. That hasn’t happened so far to him in Cape, he said.

“It’s less overt here,” Shedd said.

But with a high-pressure school environment and expectations that this is to be “the best times of their lives,” he said, drugs and alcohol can be a way to escape.

“Some kids can use alcohol or marijuana and seem to be able to function,” Shedd said.

Though some of the kids are good at hiding their use when at school, if students are caught red-handed, parents tend to cooperate with the schools, Shedd said.

Even then, the law is not very clear. The legal consequences for smoking a cigarette on school grounds are “more certain and severe” than with marijuana, Shedd said. And the consequences for having paraphernalia are greater than for having a drug itself, or for being under the influence of the drug.

One of the causes of drug and alcohol use can be the stress students are under, including pressure to be involved with a lot of activities. Health teacher Andrea Cayer said involvement in extracurricular activities is one way to help kids stay off drugs, but too many activities, with a lot of pressure to succeed, can end up doing more harm than good.

“Our culture doesn’t support a lifestyle of moderation,” she said, suggesting students and parents alike be kept busy but not over-committed.

Many colleges, she said, are more interested in an applicant doing a few activities well for a long period of time, a change from the mid-1980s when colleges rewarded students who were involved in many different activities.

Whatever the cause, Cayer said, the problem of abuse has to be addressed at home.

“I don’t know how much more school can do,” she said, laying responsibility at the door of parents, whom she said don’t always listen before reacting to drug and alcohol use.

Adolescents are in the process of figuring out who they are, separate from their parents. That means they will challenge values, rules and boundaries, Cayer said. They need risk and adrenaline highs, but in safe environments.

“Kids want to be listened to without judgment,” Cayer said. She suggests parents keep communication lines open, so kids don’t have to hide. That can be hard, especially if parents disagree strongly with what kids are saying.

Cayer noted that family can also be a source of stress from which students seek to escape with drugs and alcohol.

Parents, she said, should resist the urge to solve problems for their kids, opting instead to keep them safe while they figure out things on their own.

Cayer reminds parents that good kids can do bad things. “Separate behavior from who the person is,” she said. “Our children aren’t perfect.”

“Kids want to be able to make it through their teen years in a safe environment,” she said. The burden is on parents, teachers and others to provide that.

One of those efforts is the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education, or DARE, program. It is a regular feature in Cape’s elementary and middle school classrooms. But its effectiveness is limited.

Officer Gaspar, who coordinates the DARE program in Cape schools, said it’s a matter of expectation. With 50 minutes one day a week, he said, “what do you hope to achieve?”

He compared that to the hours of television and movies and music that kids have access to, and in which they hear and see messages indicating that drugs and alcohol are acceptable, if not desirable.

That message even makes it into the schools: Gaspar has heard references to drug use in popular music played at high school and middle school events.

DARE also addresses the consequences of individual actions. People make bad choices and make mistakes, he said. “It’s how you deal with that.”

Adults play into the dynamic of avoiding consequences, Gaspar said, protecting their kids by paying fines for them or otherwise deflecting blame from the kids.

“Everybody shares a part in it,” Detective Fenton said. Neighbors who don’t report the destruction of mailboxes or gardens are a part of the problem, he said, because they allow people to get away with misbehaving.

Cayer suggested people take the focus off kids who make bad decisions and instead ask, “what does it take to be a healthy adolescent?”

Community-minded adults
Some adults in town are working on the problem, but they say it is hard to get parents interested.

Norm Boucher, a prevention educator at Day One, a Fort Williamsbased statewide organization helping young people between the ages of 16 and 24 deal with drug and alcohol use, said the biggest weapon in the fight is information.

Boucher makes awareness and education presentations in schools and communities around the state, but getting the word out isn’t easy.

“It’s a tough battle,” he said. “Very few people show up to awareness nights. Parents don’t show.”

Parental support is important when dealing with teens, he said. The law is black and white, but, Boucher said, “the community doesn’t back (the laws).”

“The grown-ups aren’t encouraging (drinking) but they’re certainly not discouraging (it),” Boucher said. “The biggest enablers are the parents,” he said. “The kids don’t use (drugs) in a vacuum.”

“If parents really meant their threats, it could work,” Boucher said. And parents must back up the police when they get involved.

“Most of the affluent communities want to believe that the problem is in Portland,” Boucher said. But he pointed to the recent deaths of three Portland teenagers on Tukey’s Bridge. They were northbound on I-295 and heading out of the city.

“The Portland kids who want to party go to the affluent communities because that’s where the best drugs are and the best parties and the best booze,” Boucher said.

While Day One is a statewide organization, the Cape Community Coalition focuses on teen issues in town.

Co-chair Johnson agrees that keeping the interest of parents is a sizeable challenge.

“After a crisis you’ll get lots of people. That’ll last a couple of weeks,” he said.

But now, the turnout is small and usually involves one or two new people, and the regular folks who show up at all the coalition events.

“If we get 15 people, we consider it a success,” Johnson said.

The focus, Johnson said, is working on developmental assets that relate to kids’ success and good choices in behavior.

In addition to community conversations, in which a larger audience splits into small discussion groups to address certain issues, the coalition has two student-to-student mentoring programs, one for high school students to help middle schoolers, and the other for middle school students to work with students at Pond Cove.

The coalition also sponsored the climbing wall at the high school, as an activity that challenges kids and allows them to take risks in a safe environment, Johnson said.

The focus is on high school and middle school students. Getting the attention of middle school and elementary school parents has been “a lot harder than we thought,” Johnson said.

What teens think
Teens also think parents have a hard time with the issue of drugs and alcohol, but admit students can have an even harder time dealing with use among their peers.

“I see a lot of risky behavior and I see a lot of na├»ve parents,” said Cara Jordan, a senior at CEHS who joined the Cape Coalition as a freshman.

Alex Weaver, a senior and the coalition’s co-chair, said he sometimes feels “helpless” when facing drinking and drug use among his peers.

He said adults are often in attendance at coalition meetings, but students are rarer.

“It’s the kind of thing that a lot of kids know about,” Weaver said, but their schedules don’t always allow them to attend. “I don’t think they look at the meetings and don’t want to go,” Weaver said.

Though attendance is small, the programs work. “I think definitely the people who come have been affected,” Weaver said. Parents who attend, he said, go home and talk to their kids about the issues raised at coalition meetings.

Parents do want to get involved and help. “Parents just don’t know what to do,” Jordan said. She offers a suggestion, one the coalition is already doing: “Get kids and adults together and start talking about drinking.”

Parents can find themselves in a strange position, Jordan said. Knowing that kids are pretty likely to drink, should they let their kids drink at home, where the environment may be safer?

Another problem, Jordan said, is “they know what kids do but they don’t want to believe it’s their kids doing it.”

Some adults are especially concerned, she said. “A lot of parents of younger children want to hear what the high school students have to say so they can be prepared,” Jordan said.

Weaver said, “A lot of kids do (drugs or alcohol) because they don’t have anything else to do.”

Others find activities to keep them busy, and the users and the nonusers tend not to mix, he said. “The kids who do (drugs or alcohol) don’t tend to associate with the kids who don’t do it,” Weaver said.

The coalition will hold a community dialogue in early May about parents and drug and alcohol abuse in teen-agers, asking, “What are the things that we do that help create the problem?” Johnson said.