Naperville council member wants 'State of kids' town hall

Naperville City Council member Rebecca Boyd-Obarski says it's time for a town-hall meeting she might call "The State of the Kids."

The gathering, she says, would give social service organizations a chance to present research-based practices for prevention of alcohol and drug abuse - a topic she says is of increasing importance as the community questions whether its culture is leading young people to unhealthy habits.

The issue of culture came up this spring when, in the wake of two student suicides in one year, a Naperville North High School junior posted a widely read online petition seeking to change the "pressure culture" that she said drives some students to extremes.

This month, Boyd-Obarski said she saw an issue of culture again in a vote the city council took to allow liquor sales on city sidewalks.

"We give substantial funding to prevention of things that are dangerous to our youth," she said before voting "no" on the creation of sidewalk liquor licenses, which were approved by a 5-3 vote. "And yet here we are perhaps looking the other way."

Supporters of sidewalk liquor sales say the expanded selling privileges won't greatly change how frequently young people are exposed to alcohol in Naperville, which already allows outdoor drinking at restaurants that have patios on their own private property.

But the new licenses, which can be granted to up to five restaurants in a one-year program, prompted Boyd-Obarski to question how the city's rules are affecting the lives of young people.

"If the message that our Naperville culture sends is 'It's a good time if you've got an alcoholic drink in your hand,' how do they sort through that," she said.

A beer on the sidewalk is just one among many cultural messages, and it's not likely to be the reason any teen would start to drink, said Adam Russo, chairman and CEO of Edgewood Clinical Services, which offers outpatient social work, counseling, psychology and psychiatry in Naperville.

"Someone going downtown and having a drink on a sidewalk isn't going to create a major alcohol problem," Russo said.

But he welcomes the opportunity to discuss the ways culture affects youth at a future town hall, especially how unrealistic and contradictory expectations can leave teens unprepared to deal with failure and looking for an escape.

"In a whole host of ways culturally, we're missing the boat," he said.

For the future town hall, Boyd-Obarski said she plans to invite experts like Russo from organizations such as 360 Youth Services and school districts 203 and 204 to speak about proven methods to help teens and young adults avoid substance abuse and dangerous decisions.

She said she wants the event to be a review of data, not just anecdotes, with possible facts such as the number of police contacts at the schools and the effect of frequent exposure to alcohol on a teen's likelihood to drink.

"Then as a community," she said, "we can make better decisions."

Karen Jarczyk, prevention director at 360 Youth Services, said she could present findings from the Illinois Youth Survey, which includes responses about how many students are using drugs or alcohol, which substances they use, how they get their drugs or drinks and how often they use.

For example, the 2016 survey found 58 percent of DuPage County 12th-graders said they had used alcohol, 33 percent had used marijuana, 8 percent had taken prescription medications to get high and 1 percent had used heroin within the past year.

The study also found 37 percent of DuPage County 12th -graders said it would be "very easy" for them to get alcohol, and 9 percent said they got their alcohol from their parents - with or without permission.

During a town hall, Jarzcyk says she could explain findings like these in context - how they've changed over time, how they compare to other counties - and offer strategies that could help decrease the number of students who use.

"I think a town-hall meeting could really provide an opportunity for education about what we can do as parents," Jarczyk said. "We can use it in a real practical way to actually offer solutions as well as voicing concerns."

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