By Tessa Raebeck
With the approach of the “100 deadliest days of summer” — the time of year when the majority of deadly accidents occur involving young people — members of the Sag Harbor Coalition met Monday, May 6 to further their mission to prevent drug and alcohol use by local teenagers.
The task force discussed the necessity of awareness campaigns, community outreach and student engagement in the upcoming months. The majority of fatal accidents involving young drivers occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and the group addressed the need for action before events like prom and graduation.
The coalition, which had previously discussed mandating the annual pre-prom meeting for both students and parents, returned to the subject in their meeting on Monday. The prom presentation has traditionally been voluntary, with incentive of a discounted prom ticket used to get parents and teens to the table.
In a letter to the coalition, Jeff Nichols, Pierson High School principal, advised that community support for the presentation has been “very positive” in the past, adding that approximately 75 percent of students and parents attended last year’s meeting. He cited the effective job the PTSA had done running the meeting in years past, and expressed his opinion that the organization should continue to sponsor the event, rather than turning it into a school program.
“The administration will monitor attendance and, if required, mandate attendance moving forward,” Nichols wrote. “If through incentivizing students and parents we can approach 85 percent attendance, I don’t believe mandating attendance is necessary.”
Coalition member and board of education (BOE) vice president Chris Tice agreed with Nichols. Tice warned that mandating the meeting could limit the connection to the community, reminding the coalition of their central goal “to engage the community as much as possible.”
Helen Atkinson-Barnes, a Sag Harbor parent who runs the Teen Leadership Program at The Retreat in East Hampton, agreed the meeting should remain a PTSA, community-sponsored event. Atkinson-Barnes advised the coalition that she had discussed the possibility of requiring attendance with students, who told her they “might not be as enthusiastic about participating” should the meeting be mandated.
“The issue isn’t so much with the prom itself,” said Dr. Lisa Scheffer, director of the school district’s Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) and co-chair of the coalition. She noted the majority of substance abuse goes on during the hours before and after the actual prom.
Several members voiced the need to look beyond prom at the bigger picture of year-round underage alcohol and drug use.
“We’re focusing on the prom because it’s a big event,” said Atkinson-Barnes. “But a lot of this is happening way before at parties that are going on throughout the year.”
Nancy Lynott, director of the Southampton Youth Bureau, agreed.
“A real prevention effort is going to be community wide, the school is one component of that,” she said.
Dr. Carl Bonuso, the district’s interim superintendent, reiterated the necessity of keeping the coalition “as much a community group as possible.”
In order to further engagement with the community, the coalition has drafted a letter to be delivered to parents, and, ideally, to be made available to all Sag Harbor residents and business owners.
The letter outlines Suffolk County and New York State laws about alcohol, substance abuse and operating a motor vehicle under the influence. It cites the “zero tolerance” policy, which legislates that “no person under the age of 21 shall operate a motor vehicle after having consumed alcohol,” as opposed to the minimal blood alcohol content permitted in drivers over 21.
Through the letter, coalition members said they hope to encourage parents to “initiate discussions” with their children about alcohol and illegal drug use. In addition to the “zero tolerance” rule, it references four other county and state laws, reminding parents that it is illegal for any person over the age of 18 to permit the consumption of alcohol by minors in a private residence, to sell or otherwise supply alcoholic beverages to those under the age of 21, and for any person to possess marijuana or a controlled substance.
The coalition aims to distribute the letter prior to the end of the school year and at events like prom, graduation, and summer vacation that foster increased substance use amongst teenagers.
“We want our students to be safe through what is a vulnerable time,” said Beth Barth, a member of the coalition and the Sag Harbor Youth Committee.
Tice stressed the need for the coalition to take active steps “with the 100 deadliest days of summer approaching,” she said and the group agreed to move forward on finalizing and publicizing their letter to the community.
Several members expressed the need to involve more students in the committee and brainstormed ways to improve outreach, despite having no funding. Pierson senior Lindsay Cox, one of two students to attend the meeting, suggested creating a Facebook page for the group.
The coalition agreed to discuss the creation of a Facebook group at their next meeting, which will be held on Thursday, June 6 at 6 p.m. in the Pierson Middle High School Library.