For about 200 Mahwah parents, an MMA panel discussion on underage drinking and substance abuse Wednesday night provided pertinent statistics and advice about challenges parents in the community are facing. The event’s moderator, Mahwah resident and News 12 Host Jim McQueeny, and residents in the audience asked questions of a substance abuse clinic worker, counselor and parent educator, emergency room physician, attorney at law, Mahwah High School Principal John Pascale and Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli and Captain Stephen Jaffe.
Parents in the crowd had different reactions to some of the facts set forth by the panel. “One of the reasons that we wanted to hold this event is because we’ve seen juvenile complaints of alcohol or substance abuse increase 150 percent in the past year,” Batelli said. According to Jaffe, those “complaints” include incidents like house parties, and arrests of adults or older kids who purchase alcohol for minors.
“I was blown away by that statistic,” Maureen Kayal, an audience member with a 12-year-old son, said. “I came here because I want to be prepared for when I have to deal with alcohol issues with my son, and I was just blown away by 150 percent.”
For parents of teens in the audience, the reaction was a bit different. “I wasn’t surprised to hear that drinking has gone up,” Mike Devaney said. “It’s rampant, you can see it.”
Fellow Mahwah parent Mary Spencer added “kids will tell you what’s going on with their friends, they don’t hide it from you. As a parent, you just need to know when to say, ‘no, you can’t go to that party.’”
Jaffe said last year, the Mahwah Police broke up 20-30 house parties where underage kids were drinking or abusing drugs. “Those are the ones we were called to or alerted to for some reason,” he said. “We know there are a lot more.”
The purpose of the meeting, Mahwah Municipal Alliance organizers said, was to educate parents about how to interact with their kids, and how to interact with one another, when it comes to underage drinking.
“The most important thing to do is to have an open dialogue with your kids,” Lisa Paterson, a parent educator from Ridgewood, said. “You need to let them know that drinking is not okay, but if they make a mistake or something happens with one of their friends, they can call you.”
The panel promoted a “no tolerance” drinking policy for everyone under 21. However, some parents in the audience questioned the approach.
“I am not comfortable sending my kids to college never having had a drink before, not knowing how it will affect them. Isn’t banning alcohol during high school encouraging binge drinking in college?” one audience member asked of the panel.
Their short answer was “no.” Jaffe explained that “every time I respond to a situation where a student at Ramapo College has been binge drinking and is unconscious, afterward we talk to the student. I have never once had one say that this was his or her first experience drinking. They all say they drank in high school.”
According to panelist Dr. Peter Lee, a pediatric emergency room physician at Valley Hospital, teens physically and mentally can’t make “responsible” decisions about alcohol consumption, because the ability to do that develops later. “Choosing 21 wasn’t an arbitrary number,” he said.
Lee reiterated the law enforcement feeling that this is a growing issue in the area. Based on his experience working in NYC hospitals, Lee said binge drinking “is actually more prevalent here in the suburbs. Every weekend, I see a minimum of half a dozen kids who have been binge drinking.”
Attorney Tom Hanrahan said that parents who host parties at their homes where teens are drinking can be held legally responsible for what happens at the party. Jaffe said many times “we respond to a house party, and the parents are the one who open the door.” The panel urged the crowd not to allow underage drinking in their homes, and to have an open dialogue with other parents.
“It may be awkward to do, but you have to talk to other parents,” Paterson said.
Parents in the audience said that might be the hardest part of dealing with the issue. “That’s the hard part, it’s not dealing with your kids, it’s dealing with other parents,” Devaney said. “You’ve got other parents who allow drinking, and then we look like the bad guys.”
“We’ve had instances where parents in the house are condoning drinking by 15-year-olds,” Batelli said. “It’s disturbing.” Hanrahan added that parents who “think they are being responsible” by having kids drink in the house but “collecting their keys and things like that” aren’t removing any liability from themselves.
“We ask ourselves, is it a child problem, or a parent problem,” Hanrahan said.
The panel recommended, in addition to talking with kids about drinking, leading by example. “There is nothing worse than being a hypocritical parent,” Hanrahan said. “They see you drinking, why shouldn’t they?”
Pascale emphasized that kids should know they are supported, at home, at school and in the community. “We have a very proactive police department, and the school district has a great working relationship with them,” he said. “Every week, I meet with the juvenile officer, and he tells me about all of the parties, arrests and incidents that week in the township. The reasoning behind the meetings is two-fold, he said. “They are so I can keep an eye on the 1,058 students in the building, but also so we can provide children with the support they need.”
He said, based on his experiences in schools, and with his own children, “kids don’t want us to fix, they want us to listen to them. They have to know there are a lot of people who care about and support them.”
The panel encouraged parents to let their kids know that talking about mistakes they make is a good thing to do. “We don’t want to punish them,” Pascale said. “We want to support them.”
On the law enforcement side, police said an intoxicated teen who reports the intoxication of another teen, will not be arrested. “In New Jersey, we have the 911 immunity law, where juveniles are immune from criminal charges if they report others who are intoxicated.” Batelli said. “They could potentially save a life.”
Moving forward, police recommended parents call the Mahwah PD with questions, and open the lines of communication between themselves, kids, other parents, and other members of the community. More information and tips from the forum will be posted on the MMA’s website.