New Initiative Aims to Reduce Alcohol Use in Chicago Teens

(StockSnap / Flickr)(StockSnap / Flickr)

While a senior in high school, Juan Padilla struggled with depression and resorted to drinking alcohol to cope with his feelings. “I didn’t have the support I needed at home,” said Padilla, who graduated from Steinmetz College Prep in 2016. “I couldn’t talk with my friends or my teachers. The school counselor had a hundred other kids to deal with.”

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Padilla’s story is more common than you might think. A 2016 survey of 24,134 Chicago Public Schools seniors found 14,480 students (about 60 percent) reported they drank alcohol in the past year, according to the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey. Some 7,240 reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day in the past two weeks.

“Youth in Chicago face challenges of violence, trauma, education and many other issues – and those challenges, unfortunately, may contribute to young people’s decision to drink,” said Dr. Matthew Davis, division head of academic general pediatrics and primary care at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

On Monday, Preventing Alcohol Abuse in Chicago Teens, a multi-agency coalition of community organizations and governmental agencies convened by Lurie Children’s Hospital, launched a citywide campaign to curb underage drinking through public awareness and school policy reforms.

The campaign, called “I Got This,” focuses on students in eighth through 10th grades, and their parents. “The vast majority of (these youth) aren’t drinking, and the vast majority of their guardians are talking with them and setting rules regarding drinking,” said Rebecca Levin, PAACT co-chair and executive director of Strengthening Chicago’s Youth at Lurie Children’s Hospital. 

“I Got This” celebrates and elevates what youth are doing right, she added. In addition to supporting youth who decide not to drink, youth who do drink need to be supported and connected to the right resources.

“PAACT’s mission is to reduce underage drinking and to promote health and wellness by engaging Chicago’s communities and youth in strategies that work,” Levin said.

PAACT commissioned Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a youth organizing collaborative for education and racial justice, to conduct a study on underage drinking and to make recommendations on how to improve school discipline strategies for underage drinking. VOYCE shared the study’s findings and recommendations on Monday.

Last summer, VOYCE youth leaders held five citywide focus groups and collected more than 500 surveys on underage drinking and school policies. “Based on the research, some of our key findings show that youth are using alcohol to cope with mental health issues, trauma and school stress,” said Padilla, who was a co-project manager of the research project and VOYCE organizer. Participants also stated that alcohol use is “normalized” in their lives through mass media and widespread exposure, with 60 percent saying the media has influenced young people to drink more alcohol.

Respondents also reported they didn’t feel current school policies are effective in addressing underage alcohol use, with 47 percent saying their schools use harsh disciplinary action to address students who bring alcohol to school. Using disciplinary actions such as expulsion don’t address the root cause of the problem, according to the study.

Jovianne Ojeda Degillo, an eighth-grader at Palmer Elementary School, said last year a friend of hers was suspended after drinking at school and getting into a fight. “Youssef had brought alcohol to school and drank it in the bathroom, and everyone knew he was drinking,” she said. “Everyone knew about this, but didn’t mention it to anyone that could help and the issues were never addressed.”

Degillo said she knew Youssef was having problems at home but didn’t know how to intervene. “I couldn’t believe that none of the staff members noticed he had changed and needed help. ... He’s never been the same and it hurts me to see him in such a way,” she added. “Underage alcohol use is a sign that youth need to be supported, not punished.”

Among VOYCE’s recommendations is for CPS to revise its Student Code of Conduct to remove disciplinary approaches such as out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement as a consequence for alcohol use. Instead, VOYCE recommends using a reflection assessment, meetings with parents or guardians, referrals to mental health and behavioral health resources, additional community service requirements, and referrals to programs that address teen alcohol use.

“We don’t want schools to suspend students,” said Padilla. “There’s a serious need for more resources in mental and behavioral health to address the root causes of the issue of underage alcohol use and a divestment of punitive approaches in schools across Illinois. We believe if we do this it will help ensure safer and healthier learning environments across Illinois.”

VOYCE also recommends the Illinois School Code and the Illinois Criminal Code be revised to specifically prohibit the use of school-based arrests for low-level offenses, including for mental and behavioral health issues such as alcohol use and possession.

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | [email protected] | (773) 509-5452

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