Influencers meet to tackle underage drinking, drugs

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NISKAYUNA — More than 20 community members met Wednesday to chart a course for addressing drug use and underage drinking in the town.

Hosted by Niskayuna Community Action Program (N-CAP), representatives of religious, business, school, nonprofit and municipal entities discussed how to combat alcohol- and drug-related problems, including reports of parents providing alcohol to children.

In the end, those in attendance acknowledged there is a substance abuse issue among Niskayuna school students, and they agreed to leverage their resources and influence to curb dangerous behavior.

N-CAP drug-free grant coordinator Kristin Sweeter began the morning meeting with a presentation in which she said that, five years ago, she had her doubts that Niskayuna even had a drug problem.

“But then we started peeling back the layers,” Sweeter said. “The problems are not as open or in your face, but our students have means and are mobile.”

She then highlighted the results of a survey of middle- and high-school students conducted last year that shows alcohol and marijuana use among children outpaces the national average. She also noted students said parents knew and permitted underage drinking, often with children drinking five or more drinks in one sitting.

“We have a high-drinking culture in Niskayuna,” Sweeter said. “We have an accepted drinking culture.”

She went on to tell those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting that Niskayuna also has the assets to effectively reverse the trend of drug and alcohol abuse among students. Those assets include strong family connections and safe, stable living environments.

After Sweeter’s presentation, attendees participated in small-group discussions about problems and solutions, including education and changing adult attitudes toward underage drinking.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, children who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent at some point in adulthood.

The National Institutes of Health say there is an increased likelihood that underage drinkers will  perpetrate or be the victim of sexual assault.

At all the small-group discussions, participants acknowledged that Niskayuna students are under great amounts of pressure to succeed and may or may not have the skills to deal with stress and pressure which may lead to substance use and abuse.

Captain Adam Rinaldi of the New York National Guard Counterdrug Task Force summarized the discussion at his table by referring to student stress levels and urging community members to keep talking, attend forums and garner more parent buy-in to combat underage drinking.

Rinaldi also offered the assistance of the Counterdrug Task Force in resource or fundraising efforts.

N-CAP board member Margaret Brennan reported that her table was concerned that parents were the source of alcohol for students. She echoed the call for stress management and harm reduction education. The group called for an end to parent denial and greater awareness of and access to assistance programs and resources.

Rev. Jason Fulkerson summarized his group’s discussion by suggesting a greater outreach to middle school students to stop them from starting to drink in the first place.

Niskayuna Town Board member Bill McPartlon and supervisor-elect Yasmine Syed were among the attendees and were engaged in discussions with residents and leaders.

Syed said issues surrounding addiction affect people from all walks of life and should not be ignored. She was also interested to know what resources are available to help people and how the community comes to be aware of those resources.

McPartlon attributed substance use issues to pressure and the normalization of marijuana use in the media and around the country. He also noted that parents should be responsible for setting priorities and guidelines for their children and doing what’s best for their children, regardless of societal pressures.

Absent from the meeting was the Niskayuna Police Department. Sweeter said invitations and emails were sent to the department. Niskayuna Police Chief Dan McManus said he did not receive an invitation. He said that the department would attend future round tables.

When asked if underage drinking in Niskayuna is a concern for his department, McManus said, “Underage drinking would always be a concern for the department.”

McManus said the police do receive complaints of excessive noise or other disturbances that sometimes lead to the discovery of underage drinking but did not know exactly how many incidents per year the department handles.

Jeanne Sosnow, N-CAP president, closed the meeting promising to continue the conversation at future roundtables.

Sweeter thought for a first-time event, it went well.

“I was happy to see such a cross-section of people,” Sweeter said. “Business people, the faith community, the incoming supervisor, the school district and students coming together in open dialogue.”

N-CAP plans to host an evening meeting aimed at attracting community members, parents and more students before the year is out.

Major funding for N-CAP’s drug and alcohol initiatives are funded by a federal grant that will run out in September 2018. The group will reapply for another five years of grant monies early next year.