Darien school board considers changing teen drinking policy
Published 6:57 pm, Wednesday, May 24, 2017
DARIEN — As teen drinking rates in town remain high and police break up more underage drinking parties, including a recent one in neighboring New Canaan that got out of hand, the Darien School District is re-evaluating the repercussions for students caught drinking on weekends and after school.
“We spent a lot of time talking,” said Superintendent Dan Brenner. “This grew out of meeting with students where they told us we weren’t doing a great job educating about these issues that grew from our conversations with them.”
The board recently began discussing changes to “The Commitment,” which outlines the repercussions if a Darien High School student is caught drinking. The current policy calls for students caught drinking or around alcohol off campus and after school to be suspended from activities for two weeks — or more for repeat offenders.
The policy, in place since the 1980s, has long been used to combat the issue of teen drinking. But a survey put out by The Community Fund of Darien showed teen drinking in town is nearly double the national average, with 26 percent of Darien teens admitting to having a drink in the past 30 days. Board members also expressed interest in setting a policy that could prevent the tragedies that come with teen drinking, citing the recent arrest of a New Canaan High School teen and his father after a boy was injured at an underage drinking party.
Complaints about the current Darien policy include concerns over inconsistency. Specifically, students who weren’t drinking were being punished for staying at parties after police arrived for being in the presence of alcohol, and only a fraction of students actually drinking at parties were getting caught. The district also found substance use remained high even after suspending 26 students from 14 days of activities last year.
Moving forward, a committee dedicated to examining the policy found possible solutions rather than simply suspending them from activities. Students could make up for offenses through volunteer work or by attending a diversion program — an intervention program to remedy students’ behavior. As a preemptive measure, another idea was to host mandatory preseason meetings for students and their parents to learn more about drugs and alcohol.
“A wide range of folks felt we need to educate and get both students and parents in,” Brenner said. “It’d create opportunities for them to have conversations afterward.”
The preseason class would be offered at several times and would include information on the legal consequences of underage drinking, anecdotes on the effect substance abuse can have on a person and direct information about drug and alcohol trends. Failure to attend the class with a parent would lead to a postponement of participation in sports or activities. Students and parents would only need to attend one class, regardless of how many activities they’re involved in.
Still, board members expressed worry over what effect simply educating teens might have, especially when changing the consequences might not necessarily mean a change in behavior.
“We educate students now on the dangers of drinking and drugs,” said board member Tara Ochman. “But we still have a drinking problem and arguably a drug problem, so what makes us think more education is the answer?”
The board plans to assess solutions for educating teens not involved in after-school activities, as well as helping teens develop coping skills for stress in the hope it will curb drinking rates. Brenner said he also plans to consult with police on a solution and the board will continue to discuss these changes over the next year.
“We’re not going to have a one-and-a-half-hour class and watch the drinking rate drop,” Brenner said. “We have to have a conversation. I would suggest we do not invest nearly enough time in curriculum and that speaks directly to this.”