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Salinas teens to take lead role at town hall meeting on youth drinking

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Posted: Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

By CLAUDIA MELÉNDEZ SALINAS 
Herald Staff Writer

They are gearing up to talk about the alcohol and drugs around them in the world. Though their topic is serious, they release a few giggles — they may be leaders, but they’re still teenagers.

In a meeting room of Sun Street Centers in Salinas, six teenage anti-drug and alcohol promoters sit around a table, their counselors and mentors watching nearby.

Soon enough, the giggles disappear. All have been members of the Safe Teens Empowerment Project (STEP) for about a year, and all know it takes commitment to resist peer pressure for consuming illegal substances.

It can also take maturity and self-esteem.

“It depends on the maturity level, if you feel good about yourself or not,” said Jorge Quiroz, a 17-year-oldAlisalHigh Schoolstudent. “Most people do it because they don’t feel comfortable about themselves and they’re just trying to fit in.”

Everywhere they turn there seems to be alcohol: in water bottles, in locker rooms, at parties. Teenagers are drinking and their parents don’t know about it. The STEP students want to change that.

STEP will host a town hall meeting next week to discuss ways to prevent underage drinking. Teenagers from high schools inSalinaswanted to bring together teachers, parents and other community members to hear how easy it is for teenagers to get their hands on a bottle of tequila.

STEP is a program of Sun Street Centers, an organization that seeks to battle alcohol addiction and drug abuse by offering “education,prevention and recovery to individuals and families, regardless of ability to pay,” according to its website. The organization makes presentations in the community and to schools.

According to the 2009-10 California Healthy Kids Survey, which measures factors that help and hinderchildren on their road to education, one out of 10 seventh-graders at the Salinas Union High School District have consumed alcohol more than four times. The findings are similar in theMontereyPeninsulaUnifiedSchool District.

ForPacific GroveandCarmelschool districts, consumption is lower in the seventh grade, but by 11th grade the percentage of students drinking alcohol is nearly equal to the other districts.

The six members of STEP don’t have to read statistics. They have all experienced the whiff of weed coming from the hallway, the habitually stoned student at lunch break. Teenagers cut school and go home — while their parents are at work — to seek refuge from parents and truancy officers.

“Parents should not leave alcohol around,” said Stephanie Madrid, a 16-year-old atSalinasHigh School. “It’s irresponsible.”

The advice the members of STEP offer to their peers is old-fashioned, yet relevant: Don’t do it. To parents: Talk to your kids.

“If they want a lot of permission to go out, if they say they have a ride somewhere and they don’t like you to take them, then you don’t know where they’re going,” said Stephanie. “You have to ask them, ‘You want me to take you?’ My parents are like that. They want to know where I’m going, where I’m going to be, atwhat time I’m coming back.”

But some teenagers think the questions from parents are annoying.

“It’s not annoying,” said Alondra Muñoz, a 15-year-old atEverettAlvarezHigh School. “It shows that they care. I call them to let them know so they won’t be worried. I text them.”

“Ask, but don’t be all over them,” said Itzel Greer, a 16-year-old student at Salinas High.

The group, which has become a small family, makes presentations about gateway drugs, the teenagebrain and the social effects of alcohol and drug use — it can lead topregnancy, dropping out of school, losing out on higher education opportunities. They have spoken at city council meetings to prevent more alcohol outlets from opening up. They lobbied the Salinas City Council, which approved a “social hosting” ordinance last year that punishes adults for serving alcohol to minors at social gatherings with a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

They know they face an uphill battle. Teenagers believe they are immune, that drinking and smokingweed is cool.

“When you are a teenager you make stupid decisions, and when you grow older you start to think back and regret them,” Arturo Ramirez, a 16-year-old at Alisal High, said he tells his peers.

Sometimes their friends don’t really listen. Still, they know they’re having an impact.

“The children of today are tomorrow’s future,” Jorge said. “We can change the future for other generations.”

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or cmelendez@montereyherald.com.