A provocative program about the dangers of alcohol -- built into Foran High School’s Freshman Orientation -- was hailed as “an eye opener” and “powerful” by parents who attended.
The program -- punctuated by tears and applause -- was developed and funded by The Milford Prevention Council and the Milford Public Schools. It is considered to be so important that parents of freshmen were required to attend the presentation a couple of weeks ago. A parent’s absence will result in a written assignment for their child.
Recognizing the feelings of some parents that drinking is a “right of passage,” Tanya Schweitzer, director of the Milford Prevention Council, brought out statistics gathered across the United States indicating the scope of damage that underage drinking can cause. Brain development in children and adolescents can be affected by alcohol. Teens who drink and drive are mixing the inexperience of being new drivers with the impairment brought on by alcohol, a toxic combination.
In Milford, during the month of June, 2009, 1,151 youth in grades 7, 9, and 11 participated in the Search Institute Profiles of Student Life Survey. Almost 50% of all 11th graders in the study reported having a drink in the last 30 days. More surprising, 11% of 7th graders reported the same. For those who are not familiar with the ages of these students, 11th graders are generally about 16-17 years old, 7th graders are 12-13 years old.
Foran Principal John Barile asked the nearly 200 parents in the audience to hold up photos of their 9th grade children to “Remind you why you are here….This is not a staged reality show,” he said. “These are real stories – an educational event for parents and kids.”
Barile said that the school penalty for using drugs or alcohol in school starts with suspension, but can escalate to expulsion, inability to attend college, or even to get a job.
While initial cases are handled on a school-by-school basis, according to Cliff Bugyi, director of Student Support Services for the Milford Schools, more serious cases are referred to his office. It is not unusual for 20-25 students to be expelled in any given year, Bugyi said. Last year’s statistics showed an encouraging trend down in these numbers, but suspension, expulsion and police involvement are not as unusual as many parents think.
Barile introduced the speakers who represented themselves as individuals but spoke for groups concerned with the issue of underage drinking. With the aid of Power Point presentations to accompany their talks, they spoke from the heart, evoking spontaneous applause and tears from the audience. Along with parents and Foran freshmen in the Foran auditorium were Mayor James Richetelli, Jr., Police Chief Keith Mellow, United Way President Gary Johnson and members of the Prevention Council Advisory Board.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, a member of MADD showed photographs of her son, Dustin Church, who was killed in an accident caused by a drunken driver in 2004. Her presentation reminded the audience about the widespread pain that affects the person, the family and the community. The person who caused the crash has been arrested and jailed for DUI several times since.
Officer Mike DeVito of the Milford Police Department spoke from the point of view of someone who has had the task of notifying parents that their child did not survive a DUI accident or an incident of alcohol poisoning.
Attorney Carter Mario spoke about the responsibility parents have to monitor activities of their children and their children’s friends. It is, according to Mario, not only a social obligation, but a legal one as well.
Dr. Gary Kaml, chief of trauma surgery at the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, made a graphic presentation about the damage caused by drinking and other risk-taking behaviors.
In a compelling presentation, a young woman named Rachael shared her personal story of alcoholism. A straight A student and member of the student government in her Westchester County high school, Rachael’s parents “couldn’t believe their little girl was a drunk.” After years of escalating alcoholism starting when she was a young teen, and after attempts to take her own life as a result, Rachael “got sober at 20.” Remarkably, she said, “I never drank legally.” All this happened before her 21st birthday.
Finally, Ryan Trapp spoke about his near-death experience and months of rehabilitation from an auto crash that changed his life forever.
“I know I look normal now,” said the handsome and well-spoken young man, “But I can’t learn and do things the way I used to and I’ll never be the person I was.”
Reaction to the presentation was strong and positive. Archie Henriques, in the audience with his grandson, Nicholas McQuade, said, “This is a wonderful thing.”
Sharon Foran’s son, Eric Hammer, is a great grandson of Joseph Foran, and will be a freshman at the school this year. “This is a good idea that’s probably needed,” she said. She related the story of an acquaintance who died as a result of alcohol poisoning the first time he drank.
Regina Duhaime, whose second child is entering Foran this year, said, “Parents have to be part of it – to know what their kids are doing. We need some insight into what’s going on.”
Kelli Massa, there with her freshman daughter, said, “This is wonderful. The more education we can get the better it is. Many of us have lost a friend or family to alcoholism.”
Health and Substance Abuse Prevention teacher, Sharon Mikucki said, “This is a program that is most needed. I was glad to see the good turn-out.”
Parent Bruno Masciana called it a “powerful event.” We should, he said, “Reinforce the message throughout the year. Parents need to be involved with their kids, including all their friends.”
The program will be repeated at Jonathan Law High School in November. Parents who missed the Foran presentation will be asked to attend at Law.