Town hall meeting addresses underage drinking

Donelle Pardee Whiting

While the basketball team was in DeKalb earning its ticket to the state championships, lawmakers and other area officials were on hand for a town hall meeting on underage drinking and driving.

Tuesday’s meeting was hosted by the Tazewell County Teen Initiative, which was formed after 15 Tazewell County teens died in vehicle crashes during a 16-month period from March 2005 to July 2006.

According to records, some of the deaths were alcohol related.

A panel of speakers addressed about 100 educators, law enforcement officers, community leaders and residents.

During the meeting, Police Chief Jim Kuchenbecker said underage drinking is an epidemic and reiterated Washington’s zero-tolerance policy.

Not all the speakers discussed the legal and punitive impact underage drinking has on today’s teens.

Dr. John Hafner, an emergency medical physician at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, talked about how alcohol can damage a growing brain.

“We’re learning that the brain develops well into adulthood,” Hafner said, adding, “Evidence is mounting that teenagers who drink could impair their neurocognitive development. Don’t forget that alcohol is a poison.”

Hafner said alcohol affects the frontal lobe area of the brain, the part that controls inhibitions and behavior.

Washington School District 52 superintendent John Tignor discussed how schools can take an active role in educating students and enforcing consequences within the schools.

The Rev. Bob DeBolt of Crossroads United Methodist Church urged parents to take an active role in educating their children.

He also said members of the Washington Ministerial Association are available to help.

“If we can’t help, we’ll put a family in touch with a licensed therapist or counselor,” DeBolt said.

There have been no teen deaths as a result of alcohol-related vehicle crashes since the nationally recognized Teen Initiative was formed about two years ago.

A secondary objective of Washington’s town hall meeting was to act as a model for other communities.

Deputy Chief Don Volk, who organized Tuesday’s meeting, said planning began five months ago.

He added that the goal is to make them bi-annual.

Jeanne Brady, with Tazwood Mental Health Center, said she is looking into new formats to increase the effectiveness of town hall meetings.

Tremont Mayor Todd Bong and Pekin city councilman Tom Blanchard attended the meeting. Both said later they plan to hold a meeting for their communities.

Although he was a panel member at this meeting, Tazewell County Coroner Dennis Conover was in attendance, as were several officers from various agencies.