There was a muffled gasp or two in the audience when Teri Rockas, chair of the Novato Blue Ribbon Coalition for Youth, mentioned that 30 percent of fifth-graders in Novato said they had consumed alcohol.
The gasp is exactly what Rockas and other organizers hoped to hear — a signal that people are listening — when they set up a town hall meeting to discuss the chronic problem of underage drinking. The message has to hit home with a gasp or else it'll be near impossible to combat the trend.
About 75 people turned out at to hear the latest findings, learn from several experts on the topic and share ideas about effective ways to curtail alcohol consumption among minors. With proms, graduations and school out for summer all coming up on the next few weeks, the coalition is on heightened alert.
Among the speakers were Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, Novato Mayor Denise Athas, Prevention Hub Coordinator Gary Najarian of the County of Marin Health and Human Services Department, Lt. Keith Heiden and Sgt. Jennifer Welch of the Novato Police Department and several teens involved in the Friday Night Live program offered by the Youth Leadership Institute, which partners with the coalition. The Youth Leadership Institute was a co-sponsor of the town hall meeting.
A short video documentary created and produced by Novato High students was shown and contained more jarring statistics and poignant feedback from members of the community. Among the touchy subjects: Parents who say they'd rather create a safe haven for teens to drink than have the teens do it elsewhere.
"Part of the work ahead of us is ... to create a groundswell so that when that question comes up there's a group of us to stand up and say, 'Did you know that the data shows us that if you think it's OK for your kids to drink, they're going to drink?'" Rockas told the audience. "... That if you think and tell your kids that it's not OK to drink, chances are they're not going to drink?"
There were only a few teens at the town hall meeting. As student Ana Camara said, "A lot of students aren't here because they're scared they might be put on the spot, but we're here and we want to do something. Can you help us with that?" She was applauded heartily.
Arnold also received a big hand when she announced that the Board of Supervisors had passed a resolution last week urging offsale alcohol merchants to stop selling "alcopops," sugary drinks with high alcohol content that are favored by young drinkers. Also, Brienna Pope-Perez and Tarah Connolly, two students who helped pressure a local retail clothing store to take down a mannequin display with a theme of "Get Tanked!" were introduced and given an ovation.
After the presentation, the audience was invited to split off into groups and discuss subjects in detail — retail establishments, party buses and community/hotel rental facilities, and house parties — and to brainstorm about ways to make a dent in the problem.
"What we heard last night reinforced the strategies we'd been working on in those three areas," Rockas said. "I was very impressed with the savviness of the people who were there. They landed right on the community-level changes that need to happen. We're pretty excited."
Rockas said the next Blue Ribbon Coalition public meeting will be sometime in the fall. For more information, check www.novatoblueribbon.org.
For more, check out this report from KTVU's Debora Villalon, a Novato resident.