NISKAYUNA — “When you start peeling back the layers, we’re just better at hiding it," said Kristin Sweeter, during a forum Monday night about drug and alcohol abuse among Niskayuna teens.
Around 30 community leaders, including four school board members, high school Principal John Rickert, Police Chief Dan McManus, Judge Peter Scagnelli, town Councilman Bill McPartlon, clergy members and parents, gathered in the Van Antwerp Middle School auditorium to talk about root causes of rising underage substance abuse among Niskayuna teens.
It was the second time this school year that the Niskayuna Community Action Program (N-CAP) hosted an event aimed at figuring out the best ways to address binge drinking and marijuana use among middle and high schoolers.
In the end, attendees identified reasons kids in the community drink and smoke pot and offered up some ideas on how to curb the dangerous behavior.
What’s the big deal?
According to a 2016 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey given to Niskayuna public school students in sixth through 12th grades, alcohol and marijuana are the drugs of choice.
While students have been experimenting with drugs and alcohol for decades, Niskayuna students are using substances at higher rates than the national average, and usage rates were up since the last survey in 2014.
More than half (51.6 percent) of high school seniors reported binge drinking — having five or more drinks in a sitting — within the month just before the survey. Drug prevention coordinator Kristin Sweeter pointed out, “Our kids are drinking to get drunk.”
N-CAP president Jeanne Sosnow opened the meeting by asking the audience to offer reasons why children choose to get drunk and high.
Answers included peer pressure, curiosity, it’s fun, parents modeling the behavior, stress and pressure, search for identity, lack of consequences and lack of parental supervision.
According to the N-CAP survey, students overwhelmingly said they get alcohol from their parents, often with their parents’ permission.
Why in Niskayuna?
The attendees discussed why so many students in Niskayuna appear to be more likely to engage in such behavior.
Judy Tomisman was among the parents to point out the pressure the community puts on its children, including pressure from parents to achieve academically and get into the best colleges and pressure from coaches and teachers to perform on the field or to make honor roll.
Sweeter pointed out high rates of student anxiety and depression among Niskayuna public school students.
When students are feeling stressed out, they turn to adults for guidance and support. Often what they see are parents who are also feeling pressure to achieve and handling that stress by drinking or smoking pot.
Chief Dan McManus noted that local parents feel pressure to provide for their children and often do not know how to cope with that pressure.
It seemed to those in attendance that excessive stress and pressure, combined with poor adult role models and ample access to marijuana and alcohol, were primarily to blame.
Tomisman told about going to pick up her child from what she called a very nice house and a very nice family. She said she was shocked when the parent said, “I gave your son a beer. I hope you don’t mind.”
Another mother said her 10th-grade son came home and told her about a drug deal he saw take place in the high school bathroom.
Still another parent reported that her son attended a party at which students brought alcohol in water bottles and drank in the basement while parents were upstairs, never coming down to check on the students.
McManus said the schools invite police officers to visit school buildings, and his officers are pleased to be welcomed for such visits. He also said parents can and should report incidents of underage drinking, suspicious vehicles or suspicious people.
Rickert said there are codes of conduct for student athletes that specifically address alcohol and marijuana use, but those codes only cover the 67 percent of students who are athletes. One-third of high school students are under separate, less demanding codes of conduct.
Denial and stigma
Sonsow told those in attendance that, when the results of the 2016 survey were released, the community’s reaction was largely that of disbelief.
“There is a lot of community pride here, and no one wants to taint that,” Sosnow said. “When we (released the results) people swore we were lying. They didn’t want to hear it.”
Rickert said Niskayuna is not alone in its expectations or its struggles.
“There is a correlation between an increase in student stress and the propensity to these risky behaviors,” Rickert said. “Higher achievers tend to be risk takers and take chances for the good, but there can also be a push on the other side. The question is how do you handle it when kids make mistakes. We need to help students understand how to fail.”
Rickert went on to note that students are integral in the effort to curb risky behavior. He pointed to a number of student groups and clubs.
“We’re utilizing student leaders through programs at school. We’re talking about the issues. We’re not hiding things; we’re letting our kids tell us what they see,” Rickert said.
Sweeter said that all the stakeholders — families, the government, police, schools and faith-based organizations — are working together to support students.
“Niskayuna is not immune (from addiction issues); it’s insulated,” Sweeter said. “There are wonderful things that go on here. We have great leaders that work well in partnership, and the community has a lot of protective factors.
“(Drug and alcohol abuse) goes on everywhere. That’s not to excuse it. What you need to be concerned about is that we outpace the national average, and the numbers are on a slow creep-up. We can be proactive or reactive.”
At the end of the meeting, attendees wrote down ideas for addressing some of the causes of drinking and drug abuse, and another meeting was scheduled for Feb. 12, at which committees will be formed to start working on implementing ideas.
Among the audience suggestions were: provide more resources and create a greater awareness of resources; stress and mindfulness workshops; invite recovering students and parents to publicly tell their stories; normalize conversations about addiction and mental illness; start a parental network; and expand the student code of conduct.
N-CAP will also administer another prevention survey this spring.