WILLMAR -- When kids are picking up their prom tuxedos this week at Weddings on First and at Coat and Tie Inc., they'll get something else as well: a message from the Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs coalition, urging them to "Get dressed up, not messed up."
Coalition members hope the catchy fliers are a timely reminder that the teenaged rites of spring -- prom and graduation -- don't need to be accompanied by underage drinking.
"It's about getting away from the social norm of thinking you have to have alcohol," said Laura Lindeman, coordinator of the Drug-Free Communities grant program with Kandiyohi County Public Health.
This is the second year in a row the coalition has done the prom-time promotion. Six hundred of the fliers are being distributed.
It's a message authorities especially want to resonate with girls, who often are overlooked in anti-alcohol education efforts even though many of them are just as likely as boys to illegally drink before they're 21.
Law enforcement officers don't hesitate to cite underage girls who are caught drinking, said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog. "They'll be charged like anyone else," he said.
But when it comes to prevention, the messages are more likely to be targeted to males, he said. "We do tend to focus more on young boys. I think this not only goes for alcohol but for driving behavior overall."
Statistics from the Minnesota Student Survey paint a startling picture of drinking habits among teenaged girls. The statewide survey is conducted every three years among students in the sixth, ninth and 12th grades and is considered a reliable barometer of youth behavior.
In Kandiyohi County in 2007, the most recent year the survey was done, the majority of the youngest girls rarely, if ever, used alcohol. But by the time they were high school seniors, they matched and even surpassed the boys in how much and how often they drank.
Among sixth-graders, 9 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls said they had used alcohol and/or drugs on at least one occasion within the past year. Among seniors, though, significantly more girls admitted to using alcohol at least once during the past year -- 47 percent, compared to 39 percent of boys.
And although the boys tended to be younger when they had their first drink, girls quickly caught up once they reached their mid-teens.
The survey results suggest girls also are at risk of binge drinking. When students were asked how much they drank at any one time, 13 percent of 12th-grade girls in Kandiyohi County said they had two drinks and 10 percent said they had four drinks.
The statewide findings, compiled from 132,000 survey responses, indicate the overall rate of alcohol consumption was similar among high school girls and boys. For Minnesota as a whole, 62.7 percent of senior girls and 62.7 percent of senior boys drank at least once in the previous year.
It's common for underage drinkers, boys and girls alike, to obtain alcohol in their home -- sometimes from older siblings or guests or even their parents, Lindeman said.
Adolescent girls often have another source, though: older boyfriends, she said.
"We know from talking with the youth that high school girls have boyfriends who have graduated from high school already and have access to alcohol and are providing it," she said. "We've seen it happen. We hear it from youth focus groups, teachers and counselors talking with youth in the schools."
"When it comes to getting alcohol, I think it's easier for girls to get it," Hartog agreed.
This is borne out by the Minnesota Student Survey, which found girls were more likely than boys to have someone else buy alcohol for them or to obtain it at a party.
As prom and graduation season approaches, law enforcement officials say they're ramping up their alertness to underage drinking and to drinking and driving.
"It is a time when we run into more of that because of the get-togethers that happen in spring," Hartog said. "With graduations there are parties. When you have that, there's always a chance there could be alcohol involved."
Adults who knowingly provide alcohol to someone under 21 can wind up being criminally charged, he said.
"When you're having get-togethers and somebody wants liquor, be sure they're old enough, and understand the penalties," he said.
Through a Zero Adult Providers grant obtained last year for Willmar and Kandiyohi County, enforcement can be stepped up in situations that warrant it.
"We will be using that if we come across a party. We'll bring in the extra officers and treat it as a crime scene and definitely go after the person that's providing," Hartog said.