WEST HARTFORD – Across the nation, teen binge drinking incidents sky rocket on prom night. And with prom season here, concerns have been ratcheted up as local law enforcement, parents and counselors struggle to curb the trend.

The Community Action Research Team is a group of West Hartford youths who engaged in a yearlong research project in which they analyzed binge drinking among their peers.

One of the key findings was the pervasiveness and perceived normalcy of binge drinking among West Hartford teens.

The team is part of a project of the Institute for Community Research of Hartford. ICR is a not-for-profit institute that conducts community-based research to reduce inequities, promote positive changes in public health and education, and foster cultural conservation and development. The Institute has been collaborating with the West Hartford Substance Abuse Commission on issues related to underage drinking for the past two years.

Marlene Berg, associate director for training at the Institute for Community Research, and Elyse Singer, a research assistant on the Community Action Research Team project, offer a perspective on the teen-drinking scene in West Hartford.

“We did a school wide survey in West Hartford as part of our research, and when teens were interviewed, it was found that just 33 percent of the them had a drink in the past 30 days,” Singer said. “This challenges the notion that a lot of teens are drinking. They’re not. What’s changed is the way they’re drinking.”

While the reported trend is that underage drinking is on a slight decline in West Hartford, the concern is that binge drinking has stepped in as a normative, Singer explained.

“When teens do drink, they drink with the idea, ‘let’s drink as much as possible in as little time as possible; let’s get drunk,’” Singer said.

When West Hartford parents were interviewed, they named a lack of communication with their children as the number one roadblock in getting the message through.

“This is a fairly complex topic,” Berg said. “There is no single clear answer at the national level or in West Hartford. “It seems there are a number of factors – media, advertising, videos to the point where ‘let’s get drunk’ is not perceived of as problematic.”

Binge drinking in the area is not just a concern over teen behavior. The CART study also targeted 18 to 24 year olds, and found that the reasons for the rise in binge drinking were at once complex and predictable.

“The young people we talked to said what you would expect: That drinking makes them feel more confident; they have more fun with their peers when they drink; and it’s a coping behavior to deal with stress.”

Escapism through alcohol, the study discovered, factors high for high-achieving students in West Hartford who feel the pressure to perform academically as well as socially.

“Everything in West Hartford is so highly competitive,” Berg said. “Newspapers are publishing who is going to college and where and everyone knows who’s really making it. For communities where high achievement is so highly valued, it sometimes leads some kids to the need to escape.”

“We’ve heard the phrase ‘work hard, play hard’ – it’s a phenomenon we’re seeing with both teens and young adults in West Hartford and through other affluent parts of the nation,” she added.

Which makes binge drinking, Berg added, more of a problem among white, middle and upper-middle class students.

To further the problem, teenage girls who binge drink are opting for hard liquor. When the goal is to get drunk fast, Singer noted, beer or wine doesn’t make the cut.

“The ability to get really drunk with hard liquor underscores the fact that binge drinking is a goal-oriented activity,” said Singer. “It’s not about how it tastes. They don’t care how bad it tastes, as long as it gets them drunk fast.”

Where do teens find liquor? Both Berg and Singer found that most teens were getting it right from their own homes.

“The parents’ liquor cabinet,” Berg said. “That’s the most common source. Other teens get it from older kids who buy it for them, and other teens use fake ids.”

Communication is keyWith communication between parents and teens cited as the number one roadblock, Berg and Singer said parents have to learn to speak up.

“Parents must make their expectations known,” Singer said. “But more than that, they have to become active. They should find activities and pastimes for their teens that don’t involve substances, and then encourage their kids to embrace it. The scare tactic approach doesn’t work – statistics on how many teens die from drunk driving – it’s the whole area of communication that needs to be opened, between parents, focus groups, and teens.”

Caroline Crafts, 15, a member of the CART team and a sophomore at Conard High School, said that she and other youths involved in the research found that most teens overestimate how often kids drink, often leading them to believe that if they’re not drinking, they’re not on track with their peers.

“That’s the message we wanted to get out,” Caroline said. There are fewer teens drinking than you realize. The only problem is, when they do drink now, they binge.”

ConsequencesCaroline cites the long-term consequences of binge drinking – live and kidney problems, the threat of becoming a lifelong alcoholic – but notes that for teens, the consequences of binge drinking can be swift.

“They drink and drink and drink and forget that they could get pregnant, catch an STD, or just have no idea what they did when they were drunk, and then have to live with that,” she said.

Around school, Caroline said, there’s a lot of talk about drinking, even if the statistics don’t reflect it.

I see and hear about parties where kids got drunk,” she said. It’s almost like a game; who’s getting drunk today and who got drunk last weekend. It’s like a joke. We’re trying to show that it’s not a joke.”

Drinking and promConard High School Principal Dr. Peter Cummings says the school has been aggressive about curbing binge drinking among its student body, particularly at prom time.

“We do quite a bit to prevent binge drinking at prom,” said Cummings. “We work with the group “Freedom from Chemical Dependency” in organizing a pre-prom assembly with students, we have a parents’ evening, Mothers Against Drunk Driving visit, and we send out a lot of written communications to parents and students as to the guidelines regarding drinking on prom night. We also arrange classroom meeting between students and administrators to discuss prom safety.”

On prom night, selected chaperones are all adults who know the students well, Cummings said.

“We are in a position where we can really do some interventions if we suspect something is going on at the prom,” said Cummings.

Other than monitoring student behavior through the night, students and guests are assessed on their way in, in a receiving line where alcohol checks are conducted.

Parents contact information is on hand at all times prom night,” he added. “We just had a very successful junior prom where we went through all these procedures and everyone a good time and everyone stayed safe.”

Community focusPutting a lot of focus on teens and their activities has had some effect on reducing underage drinking,” Singer said. “But now, it’s the way they’re drinking that has us on the alert.”

In West Hartford, there’s actually a lot fewer kids drinking than you think, but when they do drink, they’re drinking at such high levels that it makes it seems like it’s a lot more kids than it really is,” she said.

“The strategies that we’ve tried to use in this project is to get people to see that you need a community-wide approach to the problem,” Berg said. Parents need to begin discussions with their teens about the immediate consequences – blacking out, getting sick – that will happen to anyone who binges. These are the more reliable consequences, the ones teens are not thinking about.”

Drinking to deathNearly 2,000 people under the age of 21 die each year in alcohol-related crashes nationwide. But prom season ushers in a host of other worries in connection with teen drinking, including high rates of violence, especially among young males; incidents of sexual assaults where alcohol is involved with one or both parties; and the use of alcohol as a stress reliever or worse, as a form of self-medication for an undiagnosed disorder.

Meriden-based Rushford Center Prevention Manager Sheryl Sprague said concerns about area teens and binge drinking come on many different levels.

“I don’t think parents today realize that their teens are not just drinking as a social gesture, they’re drinking with the intent of getting as drunk as they can,” Sprague said. “This is much different than when we were teens. This is high-risk drinking. This is drinking yourself into the emergency room.”

In fact, Sprague said, more and more teens are drinking themselves not only into emergency rooms, but to the point where alcohol poisoning is getting as common as a stomach ache.

“We have seen teens rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning absolutely more frequently in recent years,” said Sprague. “Hartford Hospital reports that, in particular, on weekends when a concert is in town, and teens are out there, that emergency room visits related to binge drinking skyrockets.”

According to The Century Council, in Connecticut alone in 2009, there were a reported 14 deaths in connection with under-21 alcohol impaired driving. In 2008 in Connecticut, a survey of youth alcohol consumption revealed that 32.4 percent of youths aged 12 to 20 reported drinking in the past month; 24.3 percent reported binge drinking in the past month.

According to The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, alcohol related car accidents spike during the months of April, May and June each year, coinciding with the peak months for high school proms and graduation parties. A nation-wide survey commissioned by Liberty Mutual and Students Against Destructive Decisions showed that 90 percent of 11th and 12th graders believe that their peers are more likely to drink and drive on prom night than on any other night of the year.

The idea of safe underage drinking in a controlled environment, like a home where an adult is present, is a fallacy, Sprague said.

“The notion that if there is a parent somewhere in the house that all is well is ridiculous, as we’ve seen,” she said. “If you’re a parent, and you’re hosting a party of teens at your house, it’s your job to make sure that there is no alcohol. That means being right there with them, bringing in lots of snacks, making your presence known, keeping your eyes and ears wide open.”

Advertising is lending to the problem of binge drinking, Sprague noted. Alcohol ads are increasingly targeting young people with messages that drinking has the added benefit of making you more beautiful, and more social. Further, a breakdown in neighbor communication is making it harder for parents to keep tabs on their kids.

“We don’t have a society that looks out of each other anymore,” Sprague said. “We don’t know our neighbors, and we don’t necessarily trust our neighbors, so we don’t have the caring, supportive community we once had. That support gave us a measure of safety – if a parent saw a neighbor’s teen drunk, you could bet that the teen’s parent would be told of it. We don’t have that anymore. We need to bring that back by getting know our neighbors again so that we can all support each other.”

The latest research on brain science – how and when the brain develops through childhood into adulthood – shows that a person’s brain is not fully developed until they are into their mid-20s.

The pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that develops reasoning skills and impulse control, is in fact that last to develop.

“The science shows that teens are absolutely not prepared to confront the influence of alcohol in their systems,” said Sprague. “We need the under-21 drinking laws enforced to the hilt, because the kids are not equipped to reason through the consequences of their actions.”

Police across Connecticut are also seeing a rise in violence in young couples fighting where alcohol is a factor, Sprague reports.

On Dec. 6, 2002 in Glastonbury three high school seniors were killed in an auto crash where the driving teen was drunk, lost control of the car, and crashed head-on into an oncoming car in the opposite lane, killing a father of three.

“That certainly devastated the community,” Sprague said. “That’s the kind of tragedy we’re working to prevent.”

Consistency is key, says Sprague. Know where your teen is going before and after the prom. Make it clear that the expectation is that there will be no drinking. Emphasize that fact that if they are found drinking and driving a parent’s car, that they will never drive that car again.

If kids are going to the prom in a group, talk to the other parents beforehand. Talk to your teen about alcohol abstinence in front of his or her friends. If there is going to be an after-prom party, keep checking in on them.

And despite the way they act, teens are looking to parents for clear guidelines about drinking.

“But they are not going to say it to your face,” Sprague said. “Parents are the number one influence. They have more influence than they give themselves credit for. Confidence is key.”

Surveys show that 68 percent of teens list their parents as the number one influence on their decisions surrounding drinking, and teenagers who have open communication with their parents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Parents should know that it is illegal to knowingly allow or host a party where alcohol is consumed by minors, regardless of whether it is on private or public property. Connecticut law also states that anyone who provides alcohol to minors may be fined, imprisoned, or both.

We really want to provide safety nets for our young people, through adults upholding the law,” she said.