A year-long project on underage drinking led by a group of teens at the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) Monarch School dispelled some common preconceived notions about teenage life -- much to the youths' surprise.
"When we first started this project about underage drinking, we all had a lot of assumptions, that kids party a lot, that kids don't listen to their parents," said Monarch senior Venecia Montes, 17. "We found that many of our peers are not drinking, and it surprised us."
The Monarch School chapter of Friday Night Live, a youth engagement and leadership program, received an Underage Drinking Prevention Grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety. Through the grant, youth leaders spent a year gathering data on alcohol use among teens, and on perceptions about underage drinking among peers and parents.
"With this project, it was interesting to find out about things that I might not have known otherwise, especially with the perception of teenage drinking," Venecia said. "All the people from my group thought everyone was drinking, that everyone was going crazy with alcohol. In reality, it wasn't true."
The students also found that teens want their parents to talk to them about the importance of avoiding underage drinking. "They want to get that information from their parents or a trusted adult in their life," Venecia said.
Equipped with this valuable data, the teens created and implemented campaigns that educated and engaged parents and teens on the importance of preventing underage drinking, as well as encouraged the adoption of behaviors, or social norms, that discourage alcohol use for youth.
As part of the project, the students hosted a news conference to get their message out to a wider audience of parents and teens, driving home additional key points: It's not OK for parents to provide alcohol to minors; it's not OK for teens to drink; and teens want to hear from their parents. The Monarch students shared their underage drinking prevention campaign, "Count Me In!," in which teens pledged not to drink before age 21, and parents pledged not to provide alcohol to teens.
The Monarch students said that when a parent provides just a sip of wine or beer to their child, it sends a mixed message.
With the fall social season well underway for high school students, the teens and advisers said it was important to share with parents and teens the lessons learned in their project.
"Lives can be changed in an instant when it comes teens and alcohol," said SDCOE youth development program specialist Sal Garcia, the Friday Night Live adviser to the Monarch teens.
Monarch sophomore Andrea Vazquez, 15, wants parents to know that it's important to keep kids busy, especially around the start of middle school. "I feel like that's the age where kids can go off the right path."
Andrea added that any adult in a teen's life can make a difference. "My sisters are much older than me, and I learn from them," she said. "They grew up not worried about underage drinking and partying. But they learned from that, and they tell me, 'Don't do it.' "
According to the most recent California Health Kids Survey, underage alcohol use has declined in recent years. Still, it remains a major concern for parents, educators, and teens. For 7th-graders, 5 percent reported alcohol use, down from 8 percent in 2012-13. Among 9th-graders, 14 percent reported alcohol use, down from 17 percent. For 11th-graders, 22 percent reported alcohol use, down from 26 percent.
"Even though we can see the downward trend, there's still lots of work to do. The message today is that it's still not OK to drink," said Don Buchheit, interim assistant superintendent for Student Services and Programs. "Our concern is how underage drinking is affecting youths' performance and engagement in school, and to encourage them to make the right choices. How teens deal with the challenges of growing up affects safety and wellness. Parents, your voice still matters. When it comes to our teens, the adult's voice makes a difference over their peers' voices."