At Sennett Middle School on Madison's East Side, tales of alcohol use are scarcely surprising to members of the student body. Whether it is a glass of wine at a family gathering or a night of tequila shots that one 14-year-old boy said left him vomiting for hours, students guess most of their peers will have tried alcohol by the time they begin high school.
"It's more the eighth graders that are thinking about like 'Oh, we're going to be pressured by the high schoolers next year, so we might as well start doing it,'" said AJ, 14.
Although these youth may seem jaded about underage drinking, many in the area, including Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, are not. When she began examining the problem of substance abuse last year, Falk noted the state's unflattering position as the "worst" state on several levels of alcohol abuse and addiction and has since made the issue a focus of her campaign.
This platform has also set the incumbent apart from her challenger in April's election, Nancy Mistele, who said she thinks the effects of alcohol "are a problem that is a personal-responsibility issue" during a debate in January.
"I think that most of us in our community know or love someone who suffers from too much alcohol use or has been hurt by somebody because of too much alcohol use," Falk said. "Given the enormity of the pain and the cost to us, this is work that's really worthwhile to take on."
During her most recent term, Falk revealed the various components of her alcohol initiative package last September, which included an increase in drunk driving law enforcement on weekend nights and the expansion of Pathfinders - a program to keep repeated alcohol offenders out of Dane County jails. Perhaps most notable, however, was the launch of Project HUGS as a pilot program at Sennett Middle School and River Bluff Middle School in Stoughton, and its $60,000 inclusion in the 2009 county budget.
Temptation and Pressure Start Young
According to a 2005 Dane County Youth Assessment, about one in three seventh and eighth grade students reported using alcoholic beverages within the last year - a startling statistic that helped shape Falk's determination to attack "drinking culture" and reduce substance abuse amongst the county's youth.
According to Sennett students, the need to fit in combined with lack of parental supervision or lenient parental rules regarding drinking creates enticing opportunities to use drugs or alcohol. Despite being far from the legal drinking age, alcohol isn't hard for young teenagers to get their hands on - parents, older siblings, household liquor cabinets and even fake IDs can give students instant access.
"I know exactly where it is, mine's not even locked up," Denise, 14, said of alcohol kept in her home. "They have this whole wine thing out in the open, and my dad has a bunch of beer in the refrigerator, and there's a whole cabinet full of rum and tequila and vodka and stuff."
For law enforcement officials, dealing with juveniles using drugs or alcohol can be particularly difficult because of their age. Since they are under the age of 17, Officer Jason Ostrenga of the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Force said many young lawbreakers are simply ticketed and released back to their parents without more serious repercussions.
"They can be challenging and frustrating because, for us as police, there isn't a whole lot we can do with them," Ostrenga said of juvenile offenders. "In general, just by yelling at a kid, they don't really care."
Parents Lend a Hand and HUG
But for parents who do care, the experience of dealing with a child in this position can be both difficult and painful. Stacey Slotty, program coordinator of Project HUGS said the program's mission is to "really support parents when they're worried about the direction that their teens are going in."
As mothers who "have been there themselves," Slotty and family advocate Clare Henriksen have been approached by parents who say they don't know their child anymore and are looking for advice, education and some level of comfort.
"First and foremost, [Project HUGS] just offered a listening ear," said a Madison mother with a daughter who began dabbling in alcohol and marijuana her freshman year of high school. "Until you start talking about it, you don't know how many other people are dealing with similar situations," she said.
Slotty talks openly about her own past involving her son, now 21, with bipolar disorder and addiction issues. "We're parents with training… We understand what the parents have gone through. We've had kids involved with law enforcement, mental health, substance abuse problems. And we've lived with that sort of strife in our own homes," Slotty said.
HUGS, a non-profit agency, was originally founded in 1985 by a group of parents led by Kathy Sorenson who wanted to create a unique program that focused on concerns and solutions from a guardian's perspective. Many resources exist for troubled youth with behavioral, emotional and substance abuse issues, but not for concerned parents in Dane County. "That's where [HUGS] fills a niche," according to Slotty.
High schools often refer parents to Slotty and Henriksen, HUGS' only two staff members, as a resource. Their services include bi-monthly support groups that include guest speakers and open discussion time, case management for one-on-one attention and phone sessions for questions or emergencies. The two work with cases from prevention to intervention to crisis level, and deal with between 300-500 parents and youth a year. HUGS also merged with Youth Services of South Wisconsin since the beginning of the year.
"I think kids are really desensitized to [alcohol], so they don't think it's a serious thing. And that's where I think Kathleen Falk's alcohol initiative is trying to get that message across that 'yeah, this is a serious thing,'" Slotty said.
The Program's Future Still Hazy
Mistele said she would prioritize public safety funding over other programs, but would wait to see whether the Project HUGS expansion was effective before deciding whether to renew its funding.
"I think that there's a lot of projects, both public and private, that exist to help parents form their kids... Not every good idea comes out of government, and parents individually have that responsibility to educate their kids," Mistele said.
And though Falk has shown more enthusiasm for the initiative than Mistele, ultimately she too would cancel HUGS' pilot expansion if its results do not meet expectations.
"We hope to learn that this program that we have launched, in working with students and parents and teachers, will prevent seventh and eighth graders from drinking and turn back those behaviors before they are really ingrained," Falk said. "If not, we will scrap the program, go back to ground zero and find something that works better."
Slotty and Henriksen strongly advocate for parents to set ground rules with their children and communicate about alcohol and substance abuse before they start. However, they too recognize success cannot be guaranteed through a program.
"A lot of times the kids are going to make choices no matter how you raise them. If they're a kid who likes to take risks, they're going to sometimes. So you can do the best you can with them, but they're still going to make their choices…There's no recipe for making someone who doesn't use drugs and has perfect mental health," Slotty said.
As the county fights youth substance abuse, many parents still grapple with the reasons behind their child's use of drugs or alcohol - something officials and experts alike are often unsure of. When one worried mother continued to ask Ostrenga, who was guest speaking at a HUGS' parent support group, for an explanation of her daughter's behavior, he simply replied, "There isn't always an answer to the why."
Note: The following story is the result of a partnership between Isthmus and UW-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson's in-depth reporting class. This article was written by Julia Shiplett, Abby Sears and Beth Mueller.