As the risks of youth vaping capture headlines and public attention, prevention advocates and school leaders in Niskayuna don’t want parents to lose sight of a persistent risk: underage drinking.
“Here in Niskayuna, it’s alcohol that continues to be the substance most used by our youth,” said Jeanne Sosnow, president of the Niskayuna Community Action Program board, at the start of a forum focused on underage drinking Thursday night.
While the prevalence of alcohol use among Niskayuna teens may be slipping somewhat, according to the results of a biennial survey conducted by NCAP, over 65 percent of Niskayuna High School seniors reported using alcohol at least once in their life, about four percentage points higher than the national average. But between 2016 and 2018 the share of seniors reporting regular alcohol use fell from over 50 percent to just under 38 percent, the NCAP survey found.
Despite the gains, leaders at NCAP and in the school district hosted a forum at the high school Thursday night to hear from a mother who lost her son to binge drinking and brainstorm ways to prevent underage drinking.
And the forum came as police and the advocates gear up for what’s considered one of the biggest drinking nights of the year: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when many college students return home and go out with high school friends.
A pair of students joined the forum, along with NCAP board members and staff, high school principals, a social worker, a Niskayuna police officer and a smattering of community members.
The students, who represented the student group BASE, Be Aware and Stay Engaged, acknowledged that many of their classmates drink at house parties on the weekend.
“It happens,” said Niskayuna senior Anjalee Modasra, who also serves as a student representative on the school board. “We know it happens.”
Emelie Ramsundar, also a high school senior, said as they have progressed through high school they have seen more and more of their classmates take up drinking.
But Modasra and Ramsundar both said they have abstained from alcohol for a variety of reasons: both cited family members with a history of alcoholism, their personal understanding of the risks involved and their reliance on a group of friends that don’t create pressure to drink.
“We understand the risk and we don’t want to get in trouble for something dumb,” Modasra said. “I’m not surrounded by people who do it, so there’s no pressure on me to start.”
High School Principal John Rickert said the climate in the school has improved in recent years but said some students still struggle so mightily with alcohol consumption that school staff have to help some students work through symptoms of addiction.
“We have the resources to work with students when kids get to that level,” Rickert said of students struggling with alcohol addition. “If we continue to stay consistent with our message people are going to understand.”
Niskayuna Police Sgt. Jordan Kochan, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 2000, said parents and educators should communicate to kids that they can make good decisions – even after they’ve made bad decisions. If they are going to have one drink, they don't need to have three or four drinks; if they are going to drink at a friends house, they don’t have to drive too.
“Let’s make good choices after we’ve made a bad choice,” Kochan said. “If you are going to make a bad choice, don’t make another bad choice and then drive.”
Kristin Sweeter, NCAP’s drug free communities grant coordinator, also urged parents to take responsibility for their kids’ behavior and not enable unsafe decisions by allowing kids to drink at their homes and by watching out for missing alcohol.
“To be quite honest, the onus is on you,” Sweeter said, directing her message to parents in the community. “They are your children and it has to start with you… It’s really being accountable for your child and being able to say 'no, no you can’t have that party here.' ”