"It's a big problem in our middle and high schools and continues on into college. We have a university here in our own town," said Ray Kammer of the Greater Vermillion Area Coalition on Alcohol, Drugs and Violence Prevention, "so that's another issue that we have to look at."
The Town Hall Meeting, held in the William J. Radigan Fire Station, attracted 30 citizens representing a cross-section of the community's population. The audience included city leaders, parents, educators and law enforcement officials.
Leading the discussion during the meeting was a group of local citizens who are constantly dealing with the problem of underage drinking in the Vermillion community. Panel members included Dr. Chuck Yelverton, local physician; Terisa Remelius, assistant vice president for student services; Sgt. Dallas Schnack, Clay County deputy sheriff and local school resource officer; Matt Stricherz, director, student counseling center; and Patty Larson, prevention specialist, Vermillion School District.
"The town hall meetings are something kind of new � alcohol is certainly not a new topic, but the way it's been talked about in the past has been different," Kammer said. "The government decided to try something new this time around. What they've done is given small scholarships to several communities throughout the nation, to hold town hall meetings and get people talking about this issue.
"We were one of these communities; one of the few in South Dakota, and we're really excited to host this and get some dialogue started," he said.
Remelius has been a member of the Vermillion community for nine months. "Young people see alcohol use as a rite of passage, and one of the most disconcerting things for me is to hear people say ?Boys will be boys; girls will be girls; college students need to find something fun to do.' One of the biggest problems I see is the inability for colleges and universities to engage students in academic endeavors and social engagement issues that will keep them away from alcohol.
"It's almost impossible to entertain them 24/7," she added. "I bring with me the experience of having done this for 15 years. I was really thrilled to come to USD because you have an alcohol and drug prevention program here that's one of the best in the nation. We can be really proud of that, but prevention alone isn't enough. We have to start in our homes with our kids before they leave for college, giving them the expectations of what we hope for them for their futures to be successful."
The Vermillion School District and the local community have worked hard in recent years, Larson said, to address the issue of underage drinking. She pointed to the local Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities organization, which began several years ago, as an example.
The school district also has been conducting surveys to gather data on drug and alcohol use by the community's young people. "We have a lot of good stakeholders in the community who are interested in building and strengthening assets," she said. "There are some really good things happening in our community, and a lot of people care about kids here."
Larson said alcohol is the drug of choice in Vermillion for youth, as it is in all of South Dakota.
"South Dakota's use of alcohol by adolescents is higher than the national average overall," she said. "The youth of the Vermillion School District youth are right at, or maybe slightly lower in some measures, the state average."
Larson said some of the statistics involving local young people's alcohol use have gone down in the last two year. "It's an encouraging sign."
Yelverton sees the problem of underage drinking in the Vermillion community "on an up close and personal point of view.
"We see the individuals come in the hospital or clinic," he said. "It's most traumatic at nights or weekends when we have to admit an underage person because of alcohol intoxication or poisoning. It's most striking when we see them so vulnerable."
Admissions of underage patients for alcohol overuse usually occur every fall at the beginning of the school year, he said.
"Usually it's in the middle of the night and there are no family members around," Yelverton said. "One of the habits that we've gotten into since we see this on a routine basis is to try to get our support staff involved the next morning."
Yelverton said being admitted for an alcohol-related incident sends up a red flag.
"Statistically, that person is going to have more trouble down the line," he said. "We go through the process of admitting them, we give them IV fluids, we have to watch their airways, and another thing I've gotten in the practice of doing is calling the parents no matter what time of night and telling them their child has been admitted. I feel its my obligation, even at 2 a.m., to tell them what's been happening."
The Vermillion physician said eliminating the problem of underage drinking will be tough. "There is a whole process of indoctrination that our society is in, and we're not necessarily going to solve it, but I think there are some ideas that we try to implement in the community."
Schnack works as school resource officer for both the Vermillion and Wakonda school districts. When he first filled this role approximately four years ago, surveys were showing that over 80 percent of the senior class at Wakonda High School had consumed alcohol.
The deputy is helping to implement a new program in Clay County called Project Reinforcement.
"It reinforces the parent, and the parents' role in deterring underage drinking," Schnack said. "I recognize after 11 years that me writing tickets and making arrests does not stop underage drinking. It's the parents' role, and the role models they have around them."
Parents who suspect their children may have been drinking may be reluctant to call law enforcement. "What we'll do," Schnack said, "is allow you to call us. We will come to your house in plain clothes. We will provide to you a breathalyzer. We will allow you to use it in private, and you won't have to disclose to us what the readings are. If you have any concerns, we'll address them at that time; if you want us to go away, we will.
"We will support any discipline you come up with," he said. "We won't make an arrest unless you tell us an arrest is necessary. If you have the initiative to call us, that tells us that you are trying. Hopefully we will get people who will use this program. It's completely confidential. We will follow up in 48 hours just to make sure that everything went well."
People need to know that they don't have to accept the myth that all kids drink, Schnack said.
"Kids do decide to drink," he said. "But not all kids do, and as soon as the social norm is all kids drink, I guarantee you that it will be very tough to stop all kids from drinking."
The University of South Dakota is home to the only accredited alcohol and drug treatment and prevention programs in South Dakota. It's a sign, Stricherz said, that steps needed to be taken to help save local students.
USD's efforts, he said, has allowed it to set some long-range strategies to battle underage drinking.
"We get kids that come out of our high schools in South Dakota, and our high schools compete nationally (with rates of underage drinking)," Stricherz said. "Our colleges don't really create a drug and alcohol problem with our students. We inherit the problem from our high schools, and we inherit some students who don't know how to drink very effectively at a low risk manner, and they end up at risk."
The university's counseling center has developed a program that has trained up to 10,000 students over the years on how to spot alcohol poisoning and how to take steps to keep people alive, he said.
"One of the reasons Dr. Yelverton and his folks see students that are suffering from alcohol poisoning is we have really pushed the issue of getting these kids in a safety net. Our basic goal is to keep these kids alive, teach risk reduction and teach ways to make healthy choices," Stricherz said.