SIKESTON - Most people wouldn't think that 8- to 12-year-olds would be the target group for a campaign to curb youths' drug and alcohol use.
That's a myth a new group is working to clear up about adolescent drug and alcohol use.
Thanks to a five-year, $500,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services agency and Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, the Southeast Missouri Anti-Drug Coalition formed in December to change the way people think about alcohol and drug use.
"The main goal is to educate parents on how to keep their kids from starting drinking and how to help them if (the parents) know their children are," said Bryan Montgomery, chairman for the coalition.
The campaign focuses on 8- to 12-year-olds, because that is the group where the biggest difference can be made, he added.
As its first activity involving the community, the coalition held a two-hour town hall meeting recently, one of many across the region on the nationally-
recognized town hall meeting night focusing on a growing problem.
Statistics show that in 2004, 10.8 million people ages 12-20 reported drinking alcohol within the past month; and one out of every two eighth graders have tried alcohol, Montgomery said.
But that problem has to be solved at its root - on the community level. "Underage drinking is not a national problem, it's a community problem," Montgomery said.
The meeting started with a video profiling three communities around the country's initiatives to lower drug use and was followed by personal testimonies and a question-and-answer session.
"There was a lot of good participation. We ran a little over, and if we had not cut off the questions, it would have run a lot longer," said Tabitha Vetter, executive assistant at Mission Missouri.
A graduate from each the '70s, '80s and '90s gave general testimonies of the prevalence of alcohol while they were in school and senior Jessica Harrington gave an updated outlook, saying that many students will drink during their lunch break and return to school bragging about how much they drank. "The pattern that came about was that alcohol has always been prevalent," Montgomery said. It has been a gateway to other drugs, too: leading to marijuana in the '70s, crack cocaine in the '80s, a mixture of the two in the '90s, and to pills today, he said.
Those attending the forum could also questions a panel that included Harrington; seventh-grade student Ray Clark; Jane Eaves, a women's health care certified nurse practitioner; Dr. David Pfefferkorn, a cardiologist at Missouri Delta Medical Center; and Officer Joey Henry, the school resource officer with the Sikeston Department of Public Safety.
"There was a lot of interest and some really good questions," Vetter said of the 50 people in attendance, including parents, youth and representatives of community organizations.
Awareness, in addition to communication and trust, are key tips for parents to keep their children from drinking and drug use, Montgomery said. Henry reported that several social Web sites, such as MySpace.com, have pictures of students with beer, so parents should check their children's sites, he said.
With upcoming proms and graduations, Montgomery said students and parents should take added precautions. "Keeping your kids on a tight curfew is one of the most helpful things," he said.
Parents are held responsible for underage drinking in their home even if they aren't there, according to Henry. Parents can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for underage drinking in their home. And if someone died after drinking at the home, the parent could face involuntary manslaughter charges.
Montgomery and Vetter said they had hoped for a higher turnout. "But we understand that something like this isn't easy for parents to attend because of the shock factor," Montgomery said.
Vetter agreed that denial will be a big barrier -- mindsets like "I know that's not going to happen to my child," or "I know what my kid's doing."
"(Parents) have got to open their eyes -- they can't just turn their head and look the other way," Vetter said. "Kids are good at hiding things from their parents."