Editor's Note: The New Canaan News extensively interviewed Outback staff and board members for this article, which went to press on Wednesday, Jan. 22. We learned late Thursday afternoon, Jan. 23, that Youth Director Andrew Barer was terminated on Jan. 17, the same day as one of the interviews for this article.
It is no secret that underage drinking is a widespread problem in Connecticut. In a 2012 nationwide survey, the state was ranked one of the top 10 in the country.
What came as a surprise to some parents, however, was that a high school dance party for 200 teens in downtown New Canaan would end up with one in the hospital and five others sent home for alcohol consumption.
That freshmen and sophomore dance at the Outback Teen Center Oct. 25 meant the end of high school parties with DJs at the facility. But the incident sparked a conversation in the community that many believe was overdue.
Days after that event, the Outback hosted two community forums to discuss what happened and to find ways to prevent it from recurring. Sangeeta Appel, president of the center's board of directors, said the Outback learned from those discussions that underage drinking is a widespread problem and that parents and teens should be involved in finding a solution.
"We realized this is a community issue," Appel said. "We need to address what kids do before they come here."
"It's very widespread," he said. "It's kind of nuts."
The Outback has been under new direction since early November, when Christine Simmons was named the community director and Andrew Barer was appointed the new youth program director.
Both Simmons and Barer say they believe New Canaan teens don't drink any more than teens in other communities, but they said the approach in the town is different.
"There are communities that recognize it and are willing to acknowledge that that's an issue and are trying to deal with it positively, versus those who choose to just stick their heads in the sand and collectively ignore it," Barer said. "What New Canaan is trying to do, and we want to be a part of that, is to be at the forefront of it and say `look, we know this is real; we know it's there; let's not hide it; let's try to do something about it.' Let's do something before someone gets killed."
Dangers of risky behavior
A report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that from 2008 through 2010, Connecticut ranked eighth nationally in self-reported underage use of alcohol.
The October high school party at Outback stopped after two police officers, who were chaperoning the event, saw a 15-year-old boy vomit on the floor inside the facility. The officers called emergency services and the boy was transported by ambulance to Norwalk Hospital. Following the incident, dance organizers used a Breathalyzer to test some of 200 teens who were there. They found that five more youths had consumed alcohol, and their parents were called to pick them up. Outback officials said no alcoholic drinks were found in the premises.
A look at the teen center's event calendar shows that risky behavior will be the top discussion in 2014. Outback's calendar is now broken down by theme. January's theme is empowerment for young women. February will be community and social enrichment month. April will focus on underage drinking and substance abuse and awareness.
In March, Elizabeth Jorgensen, a psychotherapist, will be at Outback to talk about substance abuse. The Ram Council, a student-run organization at New Canaan High School, will sponsor a talk in the spring about life free of drugs and alcohol, Barer said.
Jackie D'Louhy, the town's youth and family services coordinator, said the programs the Outback is preparing are helpful because not every parent is aware of the drinking problem in New Canaan. She said the town has to work together. She noted that the Department of Human Services is working with other town agencies and organizations to put a community calendar together. "We want to get the word out that these talks exist."
The list of programs at the Outback is not limited to substance abuse talks. On Jan. 30, Outback is hosting an hourlong self-defense class for adult and young women. The theme in May will be leadership and empowerment for young men.
Another behavior the center is tackling is how teenage girls dress. Appel said a dress code is being implemented and that it will follow the same type the schools have in place.
"One of the things at the dance situation I was concerned about was the way the girls were so provocatively dressed," Simmons said. "Yes, it was a Halloween costume party, but it's not an excuse to dress really inappropriately ... It creates an atmosphere that becomes sexually charged."
On Jan. 16 and 23, the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education conducted two sexual violence workshops for teens at the Outback. The organizations targeted young women 13 and older and focused the discussions on sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Simmons and Barer said they're determined to work on all teenage risk behaviors through educational programs and relationships with teens. For the moment, however, the Outback will not host parties similar to the October dance.
"Until we have a plan that we're comfortable with, until we can develop a system, or an approach where it involves community education and engaging the kids, we're not going to have parties like that," Barer said. "We may never. It may not be possible. But I believe it can be. But that's going to be a process that's going to take a while. It's not going to be overnight."
Simmons, a 15-year resident of New Canaan before she moved to Shelton last year, has been a member of the board of directors since 2007. Barer is the founder and director of the life coaching organization Wingspan Academy, where he gives young men professional advice for their personal issues. He's a certified master, life and youth and family coach.
Greer, who said he's not a drinker, estimates nine out of 10 high school seniors have tried alcohol. He said most high school parties have alcohol. "There are parties without alcohol, but they're not called a party. They're more like gatherings," he said.
No. 1 health problem
Adolescent substance abuse is the No. 1 health problem in America, according to a 2012 report by CASAColumbia, a research organization that studies prevention and treatment of addictions. The report found that 46 percent of all high school students currently use addictive substances, and 12 percent meet the clinical criteria for addiction. It also found that 90 percent of Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking or using other drugs before they were 18.
Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who also works as an adolescent consultant at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, said many teens drink to cope with stress and to fight their anxiety at a party or social gathering.
"They drink to make sure they'll be able to relax," Greenberg said. "They want to feel comfortable talking to the opposite sex."
D'Louhy said teens drink to deal with stress especially because they see adults engaging in the same behavior.
"If they see adults coping with their stress by drinking, they're going to do the same," D'Louhy said. "It's like the old saying, `monkey see, monkey do.' "
Another reason why teens resort to drinking, experts say, is peer pressure. D'Louhy said she's come into contact with many kids who don't want to go out because they don't drink and are afraid they'll be looked down on.
"Peer pressure is a huge factor because their brains are still developing," she said. "They shouldn't have to worry that `someone is going to see me without a Solo red cup and think I'm a loser.' "
"Teenagers want to fit in," she said. "Kids, by nature, are very self-conscious."
Many parents don't realize, however, that the most common place where teens find alcohol is at home, D'Louhy said.
"The easier way for kids to get drinks is in their own fridge, next to the milk," she said.
Getting drinks at home, Greer said, is common among New Canaan's high school students, especially seniors.
"Almost all of them get it from their parents," Greer said. "Most of the time they steal from their parents. But some parents supply their kids with alcohol."
D'Louhy said she believes some stores sell to minors, though she noted she's sure that doesn't happen in New Canaan but in "hole-in-the-wall" type stores in Norwalk, Stamford and Vista, N.Y., for instance. Greer said he heard of teens buying drinks from convenience stores at Norwalk and Stamford gas stations.
Another common way for them to get alcohol is by using fake IDs, he said. "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't," he said. "It depends on how old you look."
While he agrees that Outback shouldn't host any parties like the one in October, at least for now, Greer said teenagers will find another place to drink.
"Just because they're not drinking at Outback doesn't mean they're not drinking," Greer said.
Appel said smaller-scale parties, like comedy nights, "Battle of the Bands" and "Dance-A-Thon," would continue, though they would be strongly supervised by adults.
Outback's Student Governing Board is considering temporarily banning teens who show signs of drunkenness at any Outback events. Greer said the board is still working on the specifics, but he believes such teens would be banned from Outback "for a few months."
Appel said she hopes the community sees the Outback as an "alcohol-free" alternative to New Canaan teenagers.
"It's important to have a place where they can have fun without alcohol," Appel said. "There are not many places for teens to go in town. It's a small town."
Greer agreed, "It's tough. We live in a town where there's not a lot to do if you're a teenager."
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