Is teens' use of alcohol in Homer a new problem? Not according to 20-year-old headlines in the Homer News. In October 1992, three students were suspended for 30 days for using alcohol before attending a school dance. It was the maximum amount allowed for a first-time offense of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's drug abuse policy.
Resulting letters to the editor expressed support for, as well as criticism of, the school district's policies, and called for help for, rather than expulsion of, students using alcohol.
One student's parents hired an attorney and obtained a court order temporarily blocking the suspension, claiming district policies were too severe and damaging to student education. They argued for changes to district policies, specifically that parents be notified if their student had problems in school and that parents be allowed to be present if the student was questioned.
District officials argued the anti-drinking policy did not adversely affect students' education and was a deterrent to alcohol abuse. The school board upheld the suspension.
A teen drinking party in September resulting in the arrest of one Homer High School graduate and two current students for sexual assault, an investigation of the party by Alaska State Troopers and the disciplinary actions of students for that and more recent drinking incidents make it clear teen use of alcohol continues.
"It's important the whole community and school acknowledge what's happened and that it's not a new thing," Charlie Gibson, the parent of a Homer High School student, said of teen drinking parties. "We have to work hard toward some positive changes."
Gibson was encouraged by the community's concerned response at recent meetings.
"It's a wonderful start to have a plan in place for utilizing all the experts and skilled people we have in this community," said Gibson.
Policies relating to on- and off-campus use of alcohol set down by the Alaska School Activities Association and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District need clarification and consistent application, said Sara Reinert, a parent, member of the Homer High School site council and volunteer.
"The proximity (to alcohol) rule only applies to about a third of the high school students. That third is the ones actively engaged in activities at school that are positive and have made some pretty good choices," said Reinert of students participating in ASAA-sanctioned activities including sports, music, art, drama, debate, language and student government.
The policies pose a challenge for students refusing to admit they were at a party where alcohol was consumed, even if they weren't consuming, for fear of causing trouble for friends.
"People complain about the code of silence among the kids and I think this only exacerbates it," said Reinert.
She was critical of school administrators questioning students without notifying parents and having the "interrogative power" to question what happens in the privacy of people's homes. However, recent events made Reinert aware of the need for increased vigilance of what happens in others' homes.
"There is a reasonable expectation on the part of the kids that if you go to somebody's house and parents are there, it's going to be a safe environment. Circumstances lately have led us to realize that's not true, but the kids still think that," said Reinert. "I find it interesting that once again we are often expecting better behavior from our children than the parents."
Janet McNary, a parent and a Homer High site council member, believes the proximity rule "is too broad and too hard to really enforce." To illustrate, McNary said, "If (high school students) come into my home and I have an open container and I'm consuming alcohol, but I go out into the backyard to mow the lawn or go to the store and leave the open container there, they're in violation of the proximity rule." McNary viewed the recent events as a wake-up call for the area.
"It has to do with the culture of this town, the culture of parenting that goes on in this community, sports and what our community has to offer young people in the way of entertainment and activities," said McNary, suggesting an expanded health curriculum that addresses substance abuse and healthy relationships, taught from elementary school through high school.
Hope Finklestein, Brian Hirsch and their family recently returned to Homer after a three-year absence "because we felt Homer has the capacity to be a sustainable place to live in every which way. Mostly that means a community of people who care, that will show up and not just respond, but also be proactive," said Finklestein.
She applauded Gov. Sean Parnell's attendance at an Oct. 17 Haven House-sponsored meeting, as well as Haven House's effort to provide opportunities for the public to explore a community-wide effort to address teen use of alcohol.
"No one person provides the answer, but each and every person, no matter how old we are, has to become aware of our own powerful vantage point," said Finklestein.
Ginny Espinshade's perspective comes from being the mother of two former Homer High School students, a coach, a neighbor to the school and the director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court. While the phenomenon of underage drinking parties is not new, Espinshade said, "That doesn't make it OK. To me it argues for systemic change." By that she means changes that impact community norms, expectations, policies and attitudes. Espinshade urged defining "the norms that our community wants to support, then we could begin teaching those norms in preschool."
Caring is the key, said Brenda Dolma, a mother, Girl Scout leader, coach, retired teacher, youth theatre director, volunteer and concerned community member.
"We need to realize there's a problem first," said Dolma. "We've taken that first step, but we need to keep the conversation going. We have fabulous people in this community that have the tools to help us, but it has to be all of us. It can't be just a few."
Pegge Erkeneff, the school district's communication specialist, said in 2008 the district developed a health curriculum based on a philosophy of "healthy behaviors and responsible decision making," rather than just nutrition and fitness. Alcohol and its effects are incorporated in that curriculum beginning in the second grade.
For examples of how alcohol is addressed, Erkeneff said sixth grade explores the mental and physical effects of using alcohol and drugs, social and legal consequences and decision-making, while in middle school, the use and abuse of drugs is the focus.
"In addition to being embedded in the health curriculum, throughout the school year, many of our high schools do hold red ribbon activities, full-school assemblies, that may involve local law enforcement, a community program, guest speakers, and so forth," said Erkeneff. "The intent is to learn about alcohol use, effects and other additional educational and decision-making opportunities for students."
Students facing suspension as a result of violating alcohol, tobacco and other drug policies may be referred to the district's ATOSS — Alternative to Out of School Suspension — program. Paul Story helps direct that program at Homer High School. The program involves some academic study time, 20 hours of community service and an assessment at either The Center (South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services) or CICADA (Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol or Drug Abuse).
"The basic idea is get them back into school, address the problem as a problem, make sure they get help they need and give them more education on the problem," said Story.
Students referred to CICADA meet with Jack Connelly.
"They come in for a sit-down and we go over the entire situation and determine what the correct options would be at that point depending on the issue, the child and the severity," said Connelly. "They come in here with their parents. If they're under 18, that's the law. If they're over 18, they can come in by themselves."
CICADA also receives referrals through the court system, adult and juvenile probation and from individuals seeking help.
"They stay here anywhere from two or three sessions to six or seven months, depending on the situation," said Connelly, who stresses the importance of confidentiality in developing communication. "We work with the kids. We're not punishment."
For Connelly, education is the key to addressing teen use of alcohol.
"I'm not talking about going to school or college. I'm talking about addressing the issue. Explain what happens, the progress of it," said Connelly. "They don't understand the destruction it causes to families, peers and the community. ... Don't wait until after the fact. It's preventable."
Read more about the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's health curriculum by grade.