'It could happen again'

Specialists: Education can prevent some accidents

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Underage drinking is not an innocent rite of passage, specialists from the Grand Futures Prevention Coalition say. Prolonged abuse and driving while intoxicated are just a few of the pitfalls that await underage drinkers, they contend.

"Having a couple of beers won't kill them, but something related to alcohol could," grant specialist Chad Kiniston said. "We just want to make sure (parents and kids) realize there are dangers."

Next week, the prevention coalition will host the public forum, Underage Drinking: A National Town Hall Meeting, at Centennial Mall. The meeting is scheduled for 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday. The public is welcome.

National statistics indicate that fewer youths ages 12 to 20 are using tobacco (24 percent) or illicit drugs (14 percent) than years past, Kiniston said. That's the good news. The bad news: more youths -- 29 percent -- are drinking.

The numbers in Moffat County are higher, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, an effort undertaken in 2005 by municipal, state and youth agencies to gauge teen substance use.

The survey indicates that nearly 80 percent of all Moffat County High School students have tried alcohol. That number dwarfs the next highest total, which reveals that more than 30 percent of students have tried marijuana.

That information has fueled Grand Futures' decision to dedicate 2006 almost exclusively to discourage underage drinking.

"We've really looked at that survey and learned that the trend in this area is underage drinking," Kiniston said. "We thought maybe we should focus on alcohol and try and move those numbers down, as well."

Misty Schulze, also a grant specialist at Grand Futures, said most other teen issues pale in comparison to underage drinking.

"It seems to be the biggest problem in Moffat County right now," she said.

The local town hall meeting is part of a nationwide effort by the federal government's Interagency Coordinating Committee for the Prevention of Underage Drinking to shed light on the problem in communities across the country this spring.

The Craig meeting will include a video presentation, a presentation by a group of Routt County youths who have been convicted of an alcohol-related offenses and a candid discussion with a panel composed of law enforcement officers and health care professionals, among others.

It is particularly relevant to address the underage drinking problem now, Schulze said, because graduation -- an events that breeds underage drinking -- is around the bend.

"I think parents are probably more concerned at this time of year," she said. "It's a scary time."

A recent traffic accident that claimed the life of an MCHS graduate and seriously injured another also keeps the problem fresh in the public's mind, Schulze said.

Police think that alcohol was a factor in the April accident that killed Lucas Wiser and injured Jesse Haskins, both of whom graduated from Moffat County in 2005.

"I know the accident is at the forefront of everybody's mind," Schulze said. "People need to remember it could happen again."

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