Last week, a teenager was sexually assaulted at a bush party in Kamloops. More than 1,000 youth were at the party when a 17-year-old girl became separated from her friends and was approached by a male teen who sexually assaulted her.
The incident spurred national headlines. By coincidence, the Times Review had been approached the previous week to talk about the issue of teenage drinking in Revelstoke. Jill Zacharias, the city’s social development co-ordinator, said they were hoping to start a community conversation about youth substance abuse.
I met with her a week before the incident at the party in Kamloops.
“How can we start a community conversation where parents are questioning their role in enabling underage drinking in Revelstoke?” Zacharias asked.
Underage drinking is not news. Teenagers partying at the end of the school year isn’t news either. It becomes news when the police get involved or it starts to have repercussions on youth in their day-to-day lives.
Zacharias’ concern, which is shared by others on the city’s social development committee, is that parents, in an effort to protect their children, are enabling them to drink. They’ll give them a ride to and from parties rather than have them make their own way home drunk. They’ll let them party with friends in the basement. They’ll even provide them with alcohol.
“There’s a fine line between thinking you’re being a good parent and actually enabling behaviour that increases risk for harm for youth,” Zacharias said.
She has been working with several other youth workers on developing outreach programs to help parents and youth address issues of underage drinking. The committee includes people from the Ministry of Children and Social Development, Community Connections, Revelstoke Secondary School and the Stoke Youth Network.
“It’s education at school and education from families that has to take place to make sure kids are aware of issues relating to drugs and alcohol,” said school district superintendent Mike Hooker, adding that kids in Revelstoke weren’t different than anywhere else. “We are a community who are concerned about our kids so any amount of substance use and abuse is too much. In that way, that’s safe to say.”
One issue that was brought up is that teens pressure their parents by using the age-old excuse that everybody is doing it, and that its been happening in town forever, so what’s the problem?
“Certainly by no means is everybody doing it,” said Hooker. “Lots of parents have boundaries or guidelines for their kids and kids have forever told their parents no matter what the issue is everybody else gets to, so why won’t you let me.”
A youth drug survey conducted in the fall of 2009 sheds some light on the situation. According to the survey, 78 per cent of RSS students have consumed alcohol. Most had been drunk by the age of 14. Nearly a third drank once or twice a month and 20 per cent drank at least every weekend. Sixteen per cent would drink to get really drunk, and more than half would drink until they could feel it. Eighty per cent said it was easy to get alcohol.
One-third said they had been in a vehicle where the driver was under the influence. More than a quarter said it lead to fights with parents, and a fifth to fights with their friends. 35 per cent had passed out, 45 per cent had blacked out, 24 per cent admitted to getting hurt, 17 per cent committed a sexual act they wish they hadn’t, and 16 per cent had hurt someone else.
“It’s reducing harm and reducing risks and really looking at those established patterns and how you can alter that,” said Zacharias. “If a kid establishes a pattern of binge drinking every weekend through high school they’re going to continue that the rest of their life, unless they have a big wake up call.”
For Sgt. Kim Hall of the Revelstoke RCMP, bush parties cause policing concerns such as assaults, sexual assaults, impaired driving, alcohol poisoning, and, sometimes, death. Sometimes they get calls from neighbours complaining about the noise or the mess left behind. The Rotary Club has done cleanups near the Equestrian grounds, which is a popular party spot. There were criminal charges at one party in March when three teenage girls assaulted another one.
“Do we have a high-volume of calls?” said Hall. “I guess relatively, no, we don’t get a high volume. However we go back to what the worst case scenario and we all know we as a community have to ensure the safety and well-being of young people.
“We want them to have a good time and enjoy their teenage years. We want to keep them safe and this is not a safe way to do it.”
Zacharias hopes to raise a community dialogue around the issue. She wants parents to start talking about enabling alcohol use. They also want to provide more alternatives for teens in Revelstoke so they don’t resort to drinking.
“We want to be myth busters and not just blow it off as something all kids do and they’re just being kids,” she said. “There’s a fine line between them just being kids and enabling a pattern of use. They’re going to keep pushing the boundaries.”
Superintendent Hooker said that from his experience high school students are more likely to look out for each other, which leads to fewer problems. “My perception is there are far fewer problems associated,” he said. “You mentioned fights – those are far more infrequent than what I experienced years and years ago.”
Still, he said, it’s important to address problems that result from partying and alcohol use when they do occur, because they inevitably spill over into the school. However, he added that many kids at school are aware of their own health and wellness and go to parties, but don’t drink.
“There are always a small percentage of our more vulnerable kids who are more apt to be involved in risky behaviours, including drugs and alcohol, and those are the ones we tend to focus our attention on,” he said. “And those are also the ones the stories are built on when the kids say everyone is doing it. There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy there too.”