Although the issue at first seemed only distantly related to their collective and current position in life, Escambia County Middle School seventh- and eighth-graders discovered last week why state officials are targeting their demographic in an awareness campaign aimed at reducing the frequency of underage drinking.
Sponsored by the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, “Under Age, Under Arrest” also incorporates Alabama State Troopers and members of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in getting the message across. This is the fourth year the program has been in existence.
“You’re probably thinking that, ‘we’re in middle school; this is not really an issue for us’,” said Dean Argo, Government Relations and Communications Manager for the ABC Board. “But I think by the end of the program today, you’re going to see that it actually is an issue for your age group.”
Argo pointed out that alcohol is “an addictive, mind-altering drug” that causes slurred speech, loss of depth perception and the inability to make decisions. A growing number of teens and preteens are finding that out first-hand, he said, noting that “we are losing 5,000 young people a year to alcohol-related diseases and accidents, and that’s way too many young people.”
The ABC official stated that the only way anyone younger than age 21 can obtain alcoholic beverages is through an adult. He also related the results of the state’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which showed that one out of three eighth-graders had tried alcohol, that three out of four high school seniors had tried it, and that 66 percent of Alabama’s college students identified themselves as drinkers.
“Again, you might not think this program applies to you at the moment, but I promise you that if you start looking at the statistics, looking at the information you will be given and you will hear today, you will understand why this applies to you,” he said.
State Trooper Blake Thurmond told the teens that some of them have already earned “a Master’s Degree in alcohol and drugs” from being around parents and other adults who regularly partake of spirits and illicit substances. He explained, though, that even in those cases, whether or not one drinks alcohol eventually becomes a simple and personal decision.
“What it all comes down to is choice,” the trooper said. “You have a choice to do what you want to do. I could stand up here all day and tell you don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t smoke. But when it comes down to it, one day you’re going to be a grown man or a grown woman, and you will have the chance to make that choice. I challenge you to make the right choice.”
Thurmond, who is in his 22nd year as a trooper and currently is a traffic homicide investigator, told of the carnage and death he has seen during that time and of the countless families to whom he has had to make a death notification. He had to fight to keep his emotions in check as he related the story of a good friend, a Covington County deputy, who was killed in 2004 by a drunk driver.
“I hope that when I retire, there’s a little pill they can give me that will erase all the faces I’ve seen killed on the side of the roadway,” he said.
The assembly’s final speaker was Carolyn “CeCe” Tyus, a MADD volunteer who works with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
Tyus first asked for four volunteers from the audience and had each put all his or her jewelry, wallet, cell phone, money and other loose items into a plastic bag.
Then she explained why, telling the story of the death of her son, a University of Alabama pre-medicine student who was killed in 2008 by a driver with a blood-alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit.
As Trooper Kevin Cook stepped forward to assist, Tyus talked of the emptiness and loss of fulfillment her son’s death has caused her and her family. As the ECMS students paid rapt attention, she then held up a plastic bag of her own.
“These are my son’s final effects,” she said as she showed his car keys, his dorm key, his phone, his wallet, a lock of his hair and more. “Somebody like Trooper Cook would have brought me this bag. You’ll get your bags back, but my son never got his back. It’s all I have left of him, so it goes everywhere I go.”
Argo closed out the presentation with a final plea that the youngsters heed the law and make decisions that have a better chance of creating a positive result.
“A lot of things you do in life, you do because you don’t think they affect anyone else, it’s just decisions on decisions on decisions,” he said. “But I hope that because of what you’ve heard this afternoon, you understand that the law that says you have to be 21 (to drink alcohol) is for your safety.
“That doesn’t mean that once you get to 21 you can do whatever you want to, that nothing bad is going to happen. It just means that when you reach the age of 21, hopefully you will have matured to the point where you realize that each of your decisions have consequences.”