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County forum addresses underage drinking woes

Eighth District Judge Donald Spilseth was one of a group of local officials who sat on a panel Monday to discuss the effects of underage drinking. Spilseth said the county court system issued 370 citations for underage consumptions in 2008. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Underage drinking in Kandiyohi County today probably is not what parents may remember from their days as teenagers.

That was one of the messages at a town hall meeting this week in Willmar conducted by Kandiyohi County Public Health and the Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Coalition.

The open forum Monday at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar was one of almost 2,000 town hall meetings held nationwide throughout the week, which coincides with the start of April's Alcohol Awareness Month.

At the meeting, participants watched videos on current trends in underage drinking and heard from a panel of speakers regarding the hidden impact of underage alcohol use in the community. Panel experts and statistics alike suggested that Kandiyohi County's underage drinking has seen a change in recent decades.

"What parents don't realize is that it isn't just a few beers anymore," said one participant in attendance.

Dave Holmquist, a Kandiyohi County deputy sheriff serving as the New London-Spicer High School resource officer, said NLS High School today is not the high school he remembered when he was a student.

"It's definitely different walking the hallways now," said Holmquist, one of the panel members for the discussion.

Laura Lindeman, drug free grant coordinator and a Kandiyohi County health educator, opened the meeting with statistics specific to Kandiyohi County youth. According to Lindeman, 49 percent of high school seniors in the county in 2007 said they had used alcohol within the last 30 days.

"Kandiyohi (County) youth show alcohol use in key areas that are similar or higher than the state average for high school youth in a state with an already excessively high average," Lindeman said.

Minnesota's substance abuse rates were among the highest in the country for youth ages 12 and older.

A panel of speakers -- led by moderator Jay Kieft, Kandiyohi County family services director -- discussed the hidden impact of underage alcohol use in the community.

The Rev. Paul McCullough, panel speaker and associate pastor at Assembly of God Church in Willmar, said today's teens lack positive role models.

"I miss the heroes," McCullough said in reference to celebrities and sports figures failing as positive role models for youth.

Panel member Donald Spilseth, an Eighth District judge serving in Kandiyohi County, said the Kandiyohi County court system issued 370 citations for underage consumptions in 2008 -- an increase from years past.

Though panel members came from diverse backgrounds and occupations, all could all agree on one thing: parental involvement and a positive home environment are crucial when it comes to decisions youth make about alcohol.

"Youth really need support of their families to help them achieve and maintain sobriety," said Kandiyohi County probation officer Lilbon Clark of rehabilitated youth he sees coming through the program.

"What parents may not realize," said Lindeman, "is that children say that their parents' disapproval of underage drinking is a key reason they have chosen not to drink."