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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fear Factor - Navigating the Public School Gang Wars

CASA Columbia just came out with its new "Fear Factor" study (OK that's my term) on gangs in middle and high school. Although the New York drug and alcohol research arm of Columbia University can over do it sometimes, there's no way to downplay what this year's study found.

About one in four surveyed teens attending public schools reported the presence of both gangs and drugs at their schools, and 32% of 12- and 13-year-old middle school children said drugs were used, kept, or sold on school grounds -- a jump of 39% in just one year.

The 12- to 17-year-olds who participated in the survey were asked about the presence of gangs at their schools. Among the findings:

* 46% of public school students, but just 2% of private and religious school students, said there were gangs at their school.

* Compared to teens in schools without gangs, those in schools with gangs were nearly twice as likely to report that drugs were available and used at school (30% vs. 58%).We know where there are drugs, there is alcohol too.

* Compared to teens attending schools without gangs and drugs, teens attending schools with drugs and gangs were 12 times more likely to have tried cigarettes, five times as likely to have used marijuana, and three times more likely to have used alcohol.

Although I find this data chilling, my kids go to public school and it's not really a big surprise. There are gangs in our schools and they cause trouble. The police found a locker full of guns at Einstein High School (our feeder high school) two years ago.

The principal called in all the parents to reassure them that the guns were not meant to be used - "JUST SOLD." How did they find out there were guns? A kid reported hearing a shot coming from the bathroom. Comforting isn't it?

Another kid got on a bus in our downtown area to head back home and was shot for arguing with a boy who turned out to be a member of MS-13.

A boy in our neighborhood who was adopted from El Salvador as a toddler, was smoking marijuana and starting to fail out of high school when he asked his parents if he could go to boarding school. Why? The gang kids from his home country were pressuring him to join. Now he's a happy, studious, kind of nerdy kid - a much better option.

What's the answer? We don't have the money to live in the private school bubble. There are a handful of public high schools in our area that don't have gangs. But they are basically segregated schools and you have to be able to buy in "certain neighborhoods" where the prices have stayed higher than the one we live in.

Given a choice between the rich white kid school and the diverse math/science, communications arts magnet high school, my son chose Montgomery Blair. So it's 116 on the list of best high schools in the nation, not 80 something.

He hated the white kids' school where BMWs were awarded with learner's permits. Of course, that school just outside of Washington, DC is not really segregated according to government terms, but the boundary lines are drawn so only a fraction of kids from the slummier parts of the area can attend. When I went to back to school night, it was a sea of well-dressed white people. I hadn't seen that even in my own childhood.

So now my son is happier, with a large group of kids he really likes, and quietly navigating the various gangs in his high school, while staying out of all of it. I guarantee he'll grow up a well rounded, more savvy and a much more compassionate person than those whose kids who get whatever they want when they want it.

The truth is running away from the gang problem - and believe me there are plenty of families in our area who do - doesn't really solve anything.

So with all the billions of dollars that our government and private foundations are spending on public school improvements - why can't they do something about the gangs?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why People Fall Asleep at the Wheel

I have fallen asleep at the wheel of my car stone cold sober.

Years ago, I was visiting my dad in Fort Lauderdale at the height of spring break and coming back from meeting a friend for dinner. I was drinking Coke. Yet I fell asleep and my car went through a red light and then luckily I woke up.

But there were police everywhere and they stopped me, made me get out of the car and walk a straight line then take a breathalizer test. They were shocked that I hadn't been drinking. It was late and I had gotten there the day before, after staying up very late for a couple of nights to finish a paper that was due before break. I was just really tired.

So imagine what it must be like for someone who has had a couple or more drinks and decides to get behind the wheel of a car.

The science of why we fall asleep at the wheel is useful to know. It's also important for explaining to your teen why drinking and driving are a really deadly combination.

Drinking alcohol can harm a teen’s ability to reason and weigh options instead of just doing something because it is fun or feels good.

The cerebellum works with the primary motor cortex to control movement, balance, and
complex motor function. Drinking alcohol can decrease motor function and slow reaction time. When drunk, you may not be able to stand or walk a straight line.

The frontal lobe controls judgment, behavior, and emotion. Alcohol may change your
emotions leading to crying, fighting, or a desire to be close to someone else.
The medulla controls heartbeats, breathing, and other functions. These may slow or stop working during heavy drinking, endangering your life.

Neurons connect nerve cells in different parts of the brain. Alcohol is a depressant that slows those connections.

Blood vessels in your brain can swell when you’ve been drinking, causing pressure that results in severe headaches.

The reticular activating system controls sleeping and waking. Alcohol abuse can depress these systems, causing you to pass out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Parenting Style Influences How and When Your Kids Drink

This seems like common sense but how many of us don't use it when it comes to taking care of our children? Easy to see faults in someone else's kids but when they are yours it's not that simple.

A new Brigham Young University study found that parenting style strongly and directly affects teens when it comes to heavy drinking -- defined as having five or more drinks in a row.

This strikes a chord within me because my mom died when I was 13 and my father disappeared into a new marriage. Guess what I did? It started with a bottle of cooking wine and a lot of vomiting.

The researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. Specifically, they examined parents' levels of accountability -- knowing where they spend their time and with whom -- and the warmth they share with their kids. Here's what they found:

* The teens least prone to heavy drinking had parents who scored high on both accountability and warmth.
* So-called "indulgent" parents, those low on accountability and high on warmth, nearly tripled the risk of their teen participating in heavy drinking.
* "Strict" parents -- high on accountability and low on warmth -- more than doubled their teen's risk of heavy drinking.