GILLETTE, Wyo. — The Substance Abuse Advisory Council wants to attack the problem of teenage drinking and drug use from every angle.
That means not only educating teens about the risks and consequences of substance abuse, but teaching parents that they're part of the problem and the solution, as well.
"A lot of parents believe that if they host the parties themselves, they're making it safe," said Rhea Parsons, a volunteer with the advisory council.
Yet it's a myth that a parent in the house will make it a safe environment for teens to abuse alcohol.
"In all reality, there's a lot of risks and dangers for hosting a party for your teen," she said.
Parents of Campbell County School District students had the chance the night of Sept. 20 to walk through a simulated party being thrown by teens and hosted by a parent. The event, Parents R U Ready?, is similar to the school district's Life R U Ready? simulation, which tries to teach teens about the consequences of abusing drugs and alcohol.
The goal of the evening was to show parents they need to be aware of what can happen to teens at parties if drinking and drug use is involved, even if a parent is home. After dropping their keys in a bowl with the dad of the house so they couldn't drive home, parents were led by a tour guide through the party.
"It's like animals at the zoo. You can see them but cannot interact with them," instructed John Beranek, the consultant from Intersections Consulting, the advisory council brought in to help run the simulation.
Parents witnessed beer bongs and keg stands, fights and alcohol poisoning. A bowl full of random prescription pills sat on the coffee table for partygoers to enjoy. A teen in the party told the parents it's not uncommon at parties for kids to pop random pills if they're available.
Shane Hollenback, one of the actors, said he was in the simulation because he hoped to save a family from having to experience what happened to him. He described to the parents how his drug and alcohol abuse led to him being stabbed at one point.
"I've walked down all these roads. I don't want anyone to experience what I've experienced," said Hollenback, who's now six months sober.
Yet the party didn't stop at just showing substance abuse. The harsh consequences of teens drinking and abusing drugs were not glazed over.
"They think I'm in high school but I'm 25. Parties like this really open doors for guys like me," said Paul Castillo, an actor in the simulation, as he snuck into a bedroom. "But don't worry about your daughter, parents. I'm a lover not a fighter."
It was not the only example of how sexual assaults take place at parties, even if a parent is home. Near the end of the party, two drunken teenage girls were passed out in a corner in the basement. A boy walks over and hoists one of the girls over his shoulder.
"This one's mine," he said as he carried the drunken girl into a bedroom.
The whole time, the dad of the party was oblivious to everything going on in his home — until the police arrived and he was arrested for providing alcohol to a minor.
"The ones that really tear me up and pull at my heart strings are the assaults," said Matt Stroot, an emergency medical technician with Campbell County Memorial Hospital and a member of the advisory council.
He described how too often he is called to deal with both underage girls and boys who have suffered either physical or sexual assaults.
"These things are real. They happen in our community," Stroot said.
Parents can put blinders on and tell themselves that their kid is good, and that bad stuff only goes on with bad kids, said Beranek. But it just isn't true.
"We heard it over and over again, it's not bad kids, it's all kids," Beranek said. "Profoundly negative things happen to good people."
For the parents who attended, the message was powerful. After the tour, many parents looked shell-shocked. Their comments during the discussion period reflected how moving the event was for them.
"We kind of know this is going on, but when you see it first-hand it makes an impact," said Nikki Schwab, a parent of children ages 17, 15 and 11. "This was such a great experience. ... It shocked me."
The point of the night wasn't to necessarily shock parents or shame parents, Beranek said. Instead, he hoped the event would start a conversation between teens and parents. Castillo agreed.
"I hope they really start to communicate more," Castillo said. "They assume their kid is doing OK. Talk to them. ... A lot of teens think their parents don't care."
Billie Hardy, a parent at the event, said hearing that kids don't think their parents cared about them hit home. She's a foster mother and she's heard her foster children say the same thing about their parents.
"It's hard because I'm sure at one time or another, my own kids felt the same way about me," Hardy said. She hopes parents will go to similar events when they happen again.
"This is something they need to see," she said. "If you hear about it, you'll blow half of it off. If you see this, it stays in your brain a lot longer."
There will be a Life R U Ready? parent/teen night Oct. 25.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com