Councilmembers brainstorm ways to tackle underage drinking, drug abuse

Keeping youth away from drugs and alcohol is an ambitious goal for any community. Mercer Island has embraced this challenge with confidence. Youth and Family Services, the school district, the Island’s police and fire departments, and all members of society are part of the initiative. And now, the City of Mercer Island is increasing its own share of the responsibility.

Two hours of conversation. That’s how much Mercer Island Councilmembers and city staff care about the well-being of Island youth. That’s how much time was spent discussing the topic at the Sept. 8 City Council meeting.

Youth and Family Services director and Communities That Care (CTC) leader Cindy Goodwin presented the Council with a holistic report, called the “White Paper,” on underage drinking and drug abuse among Island minors. The report included Mercer Island’s Healthy Youth Survey from the past eight years, a “current community prevention portfolio” and a summary of environmental factors that contribute to and help prevent drug and alcohol abuse among minors. A somewhat new approach, CTC and its supporters are pushing environmental changes above all else.

“To make a lasting impact on this situation, a communitywide, environmental intervention needs to take place,” reads a line from the “White Paper.”

Goodwin’s presentation facilitated conversation among Councilmembers about CTC’s areas of strength and needs for improvement. They also discussed ways that the city could take a more pro-active role in CTC’s communitywide effort.

“We’ve got a great team of city professionals that have really scoped this issue and are addressing it on many fronts,” said city Mayor Jim Pearman. “And there’s a sincere commitment on the Council to put our energy and resources toward this issue.”

Yet settling on concrete methods to solve a problem as elusive as drug and alcohol abuse is not an easy task. This is especially true for a body of governance accustomed to approving ordinances with set budgets, provisions and boundaries. Keeping teens away from binge drinking does not fit so easily within these parameters.

After lengthy discussion, Councilmember Dan Grausz and Bruce Basset moved to approve three proposals for the city to follow through with: improving the use of community service as a method of providing appropriate consequences for violating the law; improving enforcement activities on days and evenings — such as Mercer Island High School’s homecoming, tolo and prom — which historically have been occasion for drug and alcohol abuse; and improving communication among parents to enhance drug and alcohol abuse prevention at home and in the community.

The motion failed, however, as such goals were not within the Council’s capacity to monitor.

“This motion was giving direction. We were trying to be managers of the process. None of us on the Council are professionals in this area. The City Council is a policy board; we’re not elected to manage the city,” Pearman said.

When the first motion failed, the Council took a more advisory approach to the issue. Members proposed three new ideas for city staff to review and bring back to them.

“We’re looking for our professionals to continue their good work and bring us opportunities that we can assist with in resources,” Pearman explained.

After much debate over whether or not to tighten municipal laws — which the Council agreed were already satisfactory — Councilmembers suggested using the fines brought in from violators and redirecting them to fight the cause.

“We’re going to steer dollars coming in from [the city attorney’s office] related to drug and alcohol abuse cases and put them toward efforts of CTC,” said Conrad.

Another suggestion that Councilmembers agreed on was using the city’s TV access, MI-TV Channel 21, to provide public service announcements regarding drug and alcohol use among minors. The media campaign will target all members of the community; in particular, Island parents.

“This is a shift from individual focus on drug and alcohol prevention to [establishing] community norms,” Goodwin said. “We’d use Channel 21 to give out the message that we’re a city against drugs and alcohol.”

According to Goodwin’s report, one of the most problematic aspects out there is that a number of Island parents host parties where alcohol is consumed by minors. Some of these parents go so far as to provide the teenagers with alcohol.

“Most parents don’t do this, but the few who do — it affects a huge group of kids,” she said.

Councilmembers agreed that this was a problem the city should crack down on. Therefore, the Council prioritized “improving communication to parents on youth drug and alcohol abuse” as another achievable goal.

The Council asked city staff to take its three suggestions and “return with greater specificity” on how the initiatives should be realized. Staff will return with their recommendations in November.

According to the 2008 Mercer Island School District Healthy Youth Survey, 47 percent of 12th-graders admitted to drinking alcohol within the past 30 days, significantly above the state average of 41 percent for grade 12. At the middle school level, 5 percent of eighth-graders answered the survey question affirmatively. The state average in this age group is 16 percent.

When Island seniors were asked if they had consumed five or more drinks in the last two weeks, 28 percent replied “yes,” as compared with the state average of 26 percent. Three percent of Island eighth-graders responded affirmatively (the state average was 9 percent).

The full “White Report” can be viewed on the city’s Web site: Visit the City Council page under Council Agendas for the Sept. 8 Council meeting.

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