A survey of all Payson High School students who attended the recent anti-substance abuse play "Ask Shawna" asked, "What percentage of PHS students drink alcohol?"
The 34 percent of students completing the survey responded that 95 percent or more of the student body drank alcohol. Another 44 percent said they believed 75 percent drank.
"‘Ask Shawna' showed a scene where the officers had to tell the parents of Shawna, the one who was killed in the drinking-related accident, that her boyfriend killed her because he had been drinking (and driving)," said Heidi Haworth. She played Brandy in the party scene.
"That's a pretty powerful thing to witness, and I think it showed some of our local teenagers that there aren't a lot of positive things about drinking and that wasn't a pleasant thing to go through."
Haworth thought that for some teens, the drama might have scared them out of drinking.
"Underage drinking is a complicated problem," said Lori Martinez, a licensed independent substance abuse counselor for youth, families and adults in Payson.
"It's a slippery slope when it comes to behavior and environment and genetics. What I mean by that is, alcoholic parents do not necessarily raise children, teenagers, to be alcoholic themselves. The literature suggests that they may be predisposed or at high risk, but it is not an issue of causality."
But, according to Martinez, parents do play a big role in education, setting boundaries and stating values. Cooperation between the network of parents that teens associate with is a helpful prevention measure, yet the pressure teens can bring to bear on other teens is well known.
"I am aware there is quite a bit of alcohol abuse among teenagers in this town," Martinez said.
"Rural communities, especially, can exacerbate the problem of alcohol abuse due to some difficulty accessing age-appropriate activities.
"Sometimes a lack of parental involvement can create challenges for teenagers to want to experiment with alcohol and explore their own sexuality. Boredom certainly plays a big role," she said.
Although teenagers still have that invincible, it can't happen to me outlook, a shock, like the death of a peer or loved one can scare them.
Martinez said female teens she has worked with in a group setting have mentioned that "they have seen scary things happen to their friends like gang rape, date rape. Teens really underestimate their own ability to manage the effects of a substance and the ability to get out of a situation before it goes too far."
Agreements like the one promoted by the SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) program do not necessarily promote underage drinking, according to Martinez.
In the agreement, a parent and teen agree that if the teen drinks and calls home for a ride that the parent will pick him or her up, not be angry and postpone the follow-up conversation for a calm time.
"I've talked to several parents and all of them, without exception, would rather their child call them for a ride home safely and admit they've been drinking than try to hide it and risk their life by getting behind the wheel under the influence," said Ameigh Buckner, who played the lead in "Ask Shawna."
Underage consumption of alcohol is not that bad in Payson compared to other Arizona counties, according to Hellen Carter, chief probation officer for the Superior Court of Gila County.
But it was the second-highest offense among juveniles in the 85541 zip code for fiscal year 2005, between shoplifting and incorrigible behavior.
Southwest Behavioral Health, Rim Guidance Center has begun a new campaign to assist the community in assessing the problems of underage drinking and methamphetamine abuse.
"Both problems have been targeted by the federal government and the State of Arizona's Department of Health Services. While our Prevention Council has members representing Payson schools, Gila County CASA, Rim Guidance, Payson Community Kids, Payson Police Department and Big Brothers Big Sisters, we still need more members from other areas of the community. I would like to invite anyone who is interested to join us in this effort," said Darlene Duncan, prevention and community mobilization coordinator.
The Community Prevention Council will meet at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 26 in the Payson Library conference room. Contact Duncan at (928) 468-8055, ext. 3804 for more information.
The SADD contract is online at www.sadd.org.
1-800-248-TEEN is a toll-free Arizona hotline for teens seeking help for substance abuse, contemplating suicide or just in crisis and in need of someone to talk to who will listen.
Teen peer counselors are available daily from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. They train for 70 hours and helped field 7,000 calls last year, according to Nikki Kontz, a clinical coordinator for Teen Lifeline.
"It's the holiday season and many people, teens and adults, will celebrate with alcohol," said Buckner. "Please, everyone, call a taxi, a parent or a friend for a ride home."