Program aims to change adults' attitudes on teen drinking

Too often, people in the community are giving teenage alcohol use a "cultural pass," said John Haenes, Tarrant County Challenge's chief operations officer.

He said he'll hear them say, "Well, at least it's alcohol, not drugs."

That's an attitude that he and others who know the serious effects of teen alcohol use -- from effects on the developing brain to legal implications of an arrest -- would like to change. They'll share the facts at a town-hall meeting at Arlington's Seguin High School on Wednesday.

Tarrant County Challenge tries to prevent substance abuse by mobilizing citizens and agencies. It's the fourth year that the Challenge has helped organize such a meeting and the first time one is being held in Arlington.

"Unfortunately, participation and attendance at these events has been on the low side," Haenes said. "What we're focusing on this year is getting a pretty wide cross-section of the population so they can hear this information."

Presenters will include Arlington police and medical personnel from the Harris hospital system. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is coordinating similar events across the country this spring, gave the Challenge a $500 grant to help with organizing costs, Haenes said.

Seguin officials are happy to host the meeting, said Judith Bazan, an intervention specialist in the Arlington school district who is assigned to Seguin. Its message aligns well with a "social norming" project that the school's "Supreme Street Team," a student organization, has been engaging in since fall 2007, she said.

In that project, Seguin students were surveyed about their perceptions of alcohol use on campus and their own alcohol use. About 26 percent of students surveyed said they used alcohol. That's about on par with a 2008 study by Texas A&M University that said about 30 percent of Texas youths surveyed reported using alcohol within the past month.

After the survey, the Street Team set out to educate the students about the numbers. Most surveyed had perceived that the number of students using alcohol was much higher than it actually was, Bazan said.

The results showed nondrinking students that they weren't alone and showed those that were drinking that it wasn't something everyone was doing, said Gabriel Escobedo, a senior who is part of the Street Team. He said the group has spent a lot of time trying to get the message out that students don't have to drink to have fun. They're also focusing on teaching students about serious dangers of underage drinking. He said he hopes that students will bring their parents Wednesday night to hear more.

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641