By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Family meals, phone spyware, and random drug testing were just some of the suggestions offered by a panel of law enforcement and emergency responders, and counselors at a town hall meeting May 3 to address the problem of underage drinking and substance abuse in Liberty Hill.
The forum allowed the audience of about 80 parents and students an opportunity to ask questions and voice comments in a frank discussion on the topic.
Originally, the event was to follow a guest lecture format set by an earlier parents night in March. Agent Greg Lewis from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission had been booked to speak, but after the Chamber of Commerce and The Liberty Hill Independent became involved as co-sponsors, a growing roster of speakers expanded the event into a question-and-answer town hall format.
Also on the panel were Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, Austin/Travis County EMS Commander Michael Wright, Liberty Hill High School Principal Mario Bye, Licensed Professional Counselor Vicki Bates and Celebrate Recovery counselor David Amstutz.
Questions from the audience to the panel touched on topics such as the legality of chaperoned parties with underage drinking sometimes held on prom night, whether it was acceptable for parents to spy on their children’s social media, and if there are other communities with successful prevention programs that Liberty Hill could model.
Some audience members offered suggestions of their own, such as a local pastor who said that a regularly held “youth bash” could bring wayward adolescents into the social fold.
Though the driving questions focused on Liberty Hill, the panel’s answer to the first question of the evening gave insight into the often broad nature of the rest of their discussion.
The first question, submitted in writing, asked if there was a problem with underage drinking and illegal drug use in Liberty Hill.
Panelists were generally in agreement that Liberty Hill, while not a particular hot spot for underage substance abuse, belongs to a larger national pattern of the problem. As Bye said, “there’s not a high school you can find without it.”
Chody said that Liberty Hill’s extent of underage drinking posed a problem “not something to be frightened of, but to be vigilant about.” He later added, “If you hear it on the news in Austin, it’s here in Liberty Hill, too.”
Bates, a former teacher and coach in LHISD, struck a slightly different note in saying that as a counselor, she believes there is a problem in the area.
She said that while some adolescents try drugs as a means of experimentation, and are able to “take it and leave it,” others who use it to “numb the pain” are in a high risk category.
“I see a lot of kids that are hurting because they’ve been victims of sexual assault, or have been abandoned by their families,” she said. “My perspective is if we can get a handle to get kids to learn ways to cope, maybe we can help curb some of the addiction.”
Bates went on later in the night to say that Llano High School had seen success in combatting the problem by providing professional counselors for their alternative high school system, where at-risk adolescents are often sent. The district had also worked to make at-home drug tests available at local pharmacies.
Every panel member emphasized at one point or another the need for parents to spend quality time with their children, and to become familiar with their struggles. Wright said that, considering the lack of a “home-run solution” for the problem, this advice comes as the most important.
Amstutz at one point physically waved a stack of papers he said was a Harvard study proving that a weekly dinner spent by a family together had a positive statistical correlation with students’ performance in schools.
Lewis said that because he spends so much time with his daughter, he can immediately tell when something is wrong.
“How many dads out there play barbies with their daughter?” he said, raising his hand.
Bates added to caution parents that if they notice their child acting distantly, and the child says they would want to talk to someone, they should not be offended if that person is not them.
Combining an effort between parents and other organizations, most commonly schools, was a running theme through the panel’s advice.
Wright said it “takes a village” to effectively provide for at-risk children. He said that a community in California had found improved standardized test scores and lowered the amount of juvenile delinquency following a joint community program between organizations, though he did not specify what town or program.
He added, “Where we fail is to say one organization is responsible.”
Placing a hand on Bye’s shoulder, Amstutz said “We can’t leave our children’s future entirely on this man’s shoulders. We have to accept responsibility in our own homes.”
Chody urged parents to go “beyond the four walls of your own home” and take into regard the welfare of other children. As an example, he said that if a store is known to sell alcohol to minors, it’s appropriate to call the sheriff’s office or TABC.
One question drew a particularly impassioned response from the speakers.
A woman in the audience asked the panel’s thoughts on “supervised parties,” referring to parents who believe that if underage drinking is inevitable, it is better for it to occur under their eye.
Across the board, panel members disputed the idea’s effectiveness.
Lewis said that he had seen several such nights end in disaster, including several cases where teenagers died.
“Every underage child who drinks at that party is a separate misdemeanor for the adult,” he said, before adding that the liability is even more important.
Providing alcohol to a minor is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $4,000, confinement in jail for up to a year, or both.
Wright said that it can be difficult to ensure that no one leaves the party with their keys.
Chody broadened the question to discuss supervised underage drinking in general. While it is legal for a minor to drink with a parent, he said, “what you accept in moderation, they’ll accept in excess.”
He continued, “your child has no intent to drink with you.” Instead, he said, it often serves to give an unspoken green light for the adolescent to drink, even when the parent is not around.
Another question that attracted a prolonged discussion from the panel was about the appropriateness of a parent invading their child’s privacy.
Wright’s advice was to “trust, but verify.”
He advised parents to install spyware on their children’s phones.
“They have no privacy,” he said. “I would rather my child accuse me of being overbearing.”
He said that in a previous talk, where he had made the same recommendation to parents, one man later approached him to say that he had discovered his honors-earning student was a drug dealer.
“Be a helicopter parent,” he said. “Your kids don’t need more friends, they need more parents.”
Chody said that without a presence on social media, parents could not adequately know the bullying their child might face, or other struggles in their life that are broadcast to others.
“‘MySpace’– the term is offensive to me,” he said, playing on the name of the popular social media platform to say that parents should not feel ashamed to venture into their child’s “space” to keep informed on their wellbeing.
“I don’t mean to be doom and gloom, but there’s doom and gloom involved,” he said.
Bates used the topic to springboard into a proposal for schools to implement more random drug testing for students participating in extracurricular activities. She said she had seen students use this reason before as a way to decline substances from their peers without losing face.
The town hall meeting ended about 8 p.m., after which panelists remained available for audience members to interact with directly.
The panel discussion was not the only event at the town hall.
Before the panel discussion, a host of other educational events were hosted in the parking lot, and a free meal was provided by the Panther Pit Crew.
A K-9 unit from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department demonstrated how drug detector dogs can sniff out potential narcotics. A sample package containing real drugs was hidden on a dummy car brought to the parking lot. The dog successfully located the package within seconds.
A totaled car, taken from an actual drunk driving incident, sat crumpled nearby.
Outside the auditorium, display booths with free literature were set up by volunteers from organizations related to underage substance abuse and drunk driving.
They included the Drug Enforcement Agency, Live-Your-Dream Counseling, Celebrate Recovery and several treatment services, such as Bluebonnet Trails Community Services and the LifeSteps Council on Alcohol and Drugs.
Bye said that in terms of audience involvement, last week’s program marked a substantial improvement over the event in March.
Chamber of Commerce President Rick Hall, whose organization helped coordinate the event, said he was “extremely pleased” with the forum and is looking forward to the next one. Hall served as moderator for the event.
“We’ve got to have this next fall and next spring,” said Bye. “We’ve got to keep having these.”