Marin County has been ranked the healthiest community in the state time and time again. Yet hidden behind this picture of wellness, there is a health crisis: teen drinking. The 2013-14 California Healthy Kids Survey found that 41 percent of Marin 11th graders reported having at least one alcoholic drink in the past 30 days. Of those, 30 percent reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row).
As of Jan. 1, a new state law allows school districts to serve alcohol at social events held on campus, as long as students are not present.
The bill’s author, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-Madera County, cited a need to enable schools to raise money by renting out facilities and hosting PTA fundraisers “to help benefit our community during these economically challenging times.”
While we agree that our schools are in need of additional funds, we wonder if this law sends a mixed message to our students and community.
The Marin County civil grand jury issued a report in 2012, titled, “The Marin Youth Alcohol Crisis.” In its report, it cited that 74 percent of youth identified their parents as the leading influence in their behavior related to alcohol. Adolescents are especially attuned to the ideas of fairness and hypocrisy. We all know that kids don’t respond well to “do as I say, not as I do.”
How will the typical 14-year-old view school authorities who discipline students for possession or use of alcohol at a school dance or football game, then open the doors for their parents to have a party with alcohol at the very same school?
In a community where 37 percent of fatal car accidents are alcohol related, offering more opportunities to consume alcohol on school grounds after hours is also unsafe.
Local schools, law enforcement agencies, and the county Department of Health and Human Services have spent countless hours collaborating with community coalitions and parents to address underage alcohol abuse and its consequences.
All jurisdictions in Marin have adopted a social host ordinance to reduce youth access to alcohol in homes.
The Marin Board of Education adopted a drug and alcohol prevention policy that established substance abuse prevention instruction, intervention, and enforcement. This progress could be undermined if schools begin to liberalize on-campus alcohol use.
Together we have invested time, resources, and energy to shift our community’s social norms regarding alcohol. We have worked to reverse the idea that “everyone does it” and “it’s no big deal” to use alcohol at every social event.
There are signs that our work together is beginning to pay off. For the first time in more than a decade, we’ve seen a downward trend in underage drinking. When comparing the results from 2009 and 2013, the percent of 11th grade students who reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days declined by ten percent. It’s a small but promising change.
Recently, a survey of 1,500 Marin parents conducted by the Marin County Prevention Coalition showed that the vast majority of parents are concerned about underage alcohol use and are discussing their values and rules with their children.
While we still have a lot of work to do, these findings show that we are responding as a community to protect our children. This new law sends the wrong message and could contradict this progress.
The precious years from kindergarten to 12th grade shape the future. Our children count on us to keep their schools safe and healthy all of the time — not just until the final bell rings.
Matt Willis, MD, is Marin County’s public health officer. Mary Jane Burke is the Marin County superintendent of schools.