By Jan Hittelman

A recent “major news story” was Paris Hilton’s early release from and subsequent return to jail. Ongoing video of the front of her home during her brief release ran for hours on all of the major national news outlets. I wonder how parents of servicemen and women serving in Iraq feel when the news they’re looking for is preempted by the latest Paris update or car chase. Even Paris commented that the news should be focusing on more important matters like the war in Iraq.

Similarly, the “CWA Debate” story permeated local and national news. A debate ensued over questionable remarks made during an April panel discussion at Boulder High School regarding drug use and sexual behavior. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, can’t we all agree that our time and energy would be better spent helping teens reduce at-risk behaviors? Better yet, begin to focus more on teens’ strengths and the fact that most teens do make healthy choices.

It’s important to remember that the majority of our local high school youth do NOT drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, use other drugs, have sex, and when they do have sex, the majority uses a condom (Boulder County Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2005).
Based on the facts, we have every reason to believe that most local high school students possess the ability to effectively evaluate information and exercise good judgment. There is little disagreement that certain comments made by some panelists were ill advised. The real travesty is the prejudicial assumption that youth are incapable of critically evaluating others’ opinions. Ironically, zealous critics may have done more harm insulting the intelligence of those students in attendance, than the actual comments in question.

If only it were true that one statement from a panel discussion could profoundly impact youth behavior. For the minority of youth who are engaging in high-risk behaviors, we need to be thinking about ways to provide needed resources, ongoing education and support to empower them to make healthier choices.

In last month’s column, when asked about efforts to provide an emotional safety net for our children, the incoming Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Dr. Chris King said: “I’ve been surprised at the lack of coordination and the dearth of services in our community.” Clearly, while a variety of excellent support services for youth currently exist, there’s still work to be done. If only this story could get more attention.

An often-underestimated resource for teens is the influence of trusted adults. Whether it’s parents, relatives, teachers, neighbors, parents of peers, counselors, older siblings, or clergy, teens listen to adults that they know and respect. Research shows, for example, that when parents have ongoing discussions with their children about substance abuse, they are 50% less likely to use drugs and alcohol. We need to think about the messages that we’re imparting to our children, rather than that of strangers during a one-hour talk.