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Prompted by pastors' pleas, NLS takes aim at underage drinking

NEW LONDON -- The New London-Spicer School District is stepping up its efforts to combat what some observers describe as a climate that condones and facilitates underage alcohol use.

School officials say it's an issue they intend to take seriously.

"It's something that we need to deal with for our students, for our community. ... To ignore this would be absolutely wrong," Robert Moller, chairman of the NLS School Board, said Monday.

The issue was thrust into the open during a special meeting Monday of the School Board, during which the New London-Spicer Ministerial Association made a formal plea to address underage drinking.

The ministers' group also sent a letter to the School Board and the superintendent.

Local pastors said they're increasingly seeing the toll that underage drinking takes on families.

"You can't imagine the burden we carry," said the Rev. Corey Bjertness. "This is happening over and over again."

The trigger for the Ministerial Association's letter, which was sent to the School Board earlier this month, was a post-game party after NLS won the Class AAA state football title in November.

In the days following the championship game, allegations about the victory party and the drinking that reportedly took place during the celebration began to surface, said Bjertness. Local pastors heard from many people, both students and parents, who were concerned about the drinking as well as the mix of students and adults who were present, he said.

The party was "beyond a shadow of a doubt" planned by conscientious adults, Bjertness said. "The best use of our time is not hashing through this event and trying to find individuals to pin blame on."

There appears to be a local culture, however, that tolerates underage alcohol use and is "creating a long-term negative effect," he said. "What we have here is a climate issue."

School officials said Monday that they're looking into the reports about the victory party, which occurred on the night of Nov. 28 at a hotel in the Twin Cities.

"We need to determine whether they're factual," said Paul Carlson, NLS superintendent.

Any rumors or allegations about underage alcohol use are properly investigated, he said.

What's known so far about the post-football championship party is that it was not sponsored by the NLS School District, and it took place after the game, after students had been released to their parents or other authorized adults, officials said Monday.

"I couldn't find probable cause that our policies were violated," said board member David Kilpatrick.

But Moller said he expected better judgment from those who were at the party.

"There was some poor judgment that was used all the way around," he said.

At Monday's meeting of the School Board, board members were in agreement that the issue of underage drinking needs to be tackled more aggressively.

It's too soon to know how this might be accomplished, but among the possibilities are a review of school policies and perhaps some changes -- for instance, requiring students to ride to and from school sporting events on a school-sponsored bus.

The board voted to designate its school climate committee to start discussing it and report back to the board in February. Membership on the committee includes the School Board, administrators, parents, teachers and coaches. As a result of Monday's discussion with local pastors, a couple of clergy persons will be added as well.

The pastors and School Board members said they especially want to ease people's fear of reprisals.

"If people are afraid to step up, we'll never get a report like this again," said Helena Lungstrom.

"I don't think we want that," agreed the Rev. Paul Anderson. "We want to create a climate where we're not afraid to talk about the elephant in the room."

He and Bjertness said it was unprecedented for the Ministerial Association to write such a letter and to have near-unanimous support among its members for doing so.

"I think there are a lot of individuals that have a very deep concern," he said.

Said Kilpatrick: "I hope something good will come out of this."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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