The mean season for underage drinking is upon us, with graduations and summer vacation. “A lot of kids are at loose ends with extra time on their hands,” says Dr. John Knight. “It’s the season of high risk for teen deaths, going through the end of August.”
As co-director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research (CeSAR) at Children’s Hospital, Knight has spent 15 years researching underage drinking and drugging, and his center also treats those who need help. He started the programs after the death of Ryan Whitney (inset), a boy in his Milton neighborhood who died in 1998 at age 19 after drinking and then drowning in the Quincy quarries.
The quarries have long been a magnet for teens, and Ryan had spent the day — July 31, 1998 — up at the quarries drinking beer with his buddies. It was midnight when they got up to leave the high ledge overlooking the water. His mother thinks he lost his footing and fell into the water. By the time help arrived, he had drowned.
When Knight saw the news on TV, the pediatrician decided to devote the rest of his career to curbing adolescent substance abuse.
It’s not just kids he has to convince. Knight’s research reveals that more than 30 percent of parents nationally provide alcohol to their teenagers, and the number is even higher in the Northeast. That’s what he’s trying to change, but he’s up against it.
“Some parents decide they want to be the cool parent, the fun parent who says, ‘Well, you can drink at my house. I’ll take away the car keys.’ I have a file of all the tragedies that have occurred when parents have done that,” Knight says.
He used to schlep from school to school, giving presentations that attracted few parents. The ones who did come were those already concerned about the issue. “The problem parents weren’t going to show up,” he says. “The parents who were there were already doing the right things.”
So Knight came up with a new program where parents don’t have to leave their home to get educated on the issue — and their child’s school can verify that they participated.
Knight has targeted parents in a Teen Safe program that was piloted at Milton High School in 2010. That year, nearly all the parents of graduating seniors completed the course and there were no substance abuse incidents at the school prom or graduation. The year before, there had been five, he says.
Teen Safe is a 15-minute online course (teen-safe.org) that parents take, involving a series of short videos with a quiz at the end. At participating schools, parents receive a certificate of completion, and verification automatically goes to the high school administration. The hope is that parents will speak to their teens about what they’ve learned, and Knight says some take the course a second time, with their child sitting beside them.
The schools require the certificate of completion as part of the “check-out” process before kids can graduate. Besides Milton High, the other schools involved are Rockland High School, Hingham High, Scituate High, and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
At Milton High, principal James Jette is a big fan of the program. This year, he had all the seniors watch the videos as a group, and is thinking about also showing it to students in grades 9-11.
In the fall, Knight is seeking to expand Teen Safe to another dozen schools, and would like to make the course mandatory for parents before their students can participate in sports and other extracurriculars. “Lots of times, it’s the athletes who are drinkers,” he says.
I’ve watched the course a couple of times. There’s a lot of science, including the effect of alcohol and drugs on developing brains. Then there’s just common parental sense: Eat dinner together, talk about drinking and drugs, set rules and consequences, store alcohol in a locked cabinet, know that you are civilly and criminally responsible for underage drinking on your property.
Parents need to set a good example. It’s OK for us to drink, Knight says, but follow the 0, 1, 3 Rule. Zero drinks before driving. No more than 1 drink per hour, and not more than 3 per night.
Knight says he’s already had interest in the program in Brazil, and wants the course to spread to schools throughout the country. He also hopes to have ready for the fall a student component for Teen Safe, providing a similar course and quiz for adolescents, not just their parents.
In a letter he sends to school administrators, Knight writes that more than 30 percent of suburban parents also smoke marijuana, and says that the leading cause of teen deaths, such as accidents, involve alcohol and drugs. At the same time, he says: “Parents are the best and first line of defense in protecting their children from the dangers of alcohol and drugs.”
Teen Safe starts off with a video message from Ryan Whitney’s parents, Richard and Karen, who live in Hingham. The website is dedicated to his memory, and the Whitneys have helped raise money for Knight’s various programs related to teen substance abuse.
“We’re happy that families with preteens or teens who are suffering from substance abuse are now able to obtain help and support through the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program,” says Karen Whitney, who notes that such programs weren’t available when her son died. “We know that because of Dr. Knight and his work with ASAP and CeSAR, many lives have been saved.”
The Whitneys have held fund-raisers at the Granite Links Golf Club at Quarry Hills in Quincy, with a view of the quarry where their son died.