Most teenagers and former teenagers know the story: the friend with the parents out of town, the college-aged connection that comes through with the suds, the too-loud party talk and over-ambitious stereo, the flush of panic when men with badges arrive on the scene.
America's teenagers drink and always have, despite the slow upward creep of the legal drinking age during the last three decades. Kids around the country and in Missoula continue to risk ever-increasing penalties in order to get their hands on some cold ones, and the forces of law and order struggle to enforce a stringent age limit unknown in most other western democracies.
New laws governing underage drinking in Montana took effect on May 1 of this year. That coupled with increased police efforts, a new way of handling Minors In Possession (MIP) charges, a state grant creating a court-appointed screening position, and a new program for repeat offenders, has changed the way the Garden City deals with America's oldest drug problem.
For those under the age of 18, being apprehended with beer in hand means forced enrollment in either Insight I, a 14-year-old education program, or Insight II, a newly-minted course for those judged to have serious substance abuse problems.
That means whether dead drunk at a kegger or sitting in a car with someone else who's on the first sip of less-filling 3.2 percent beer, kids who get caught have to shell out $50 for Insights I at the least, and pass the eight-session class. If they get caught again with alcohol or other intoxicants, they end up in the more expensive, more intense second course.
The trained chemical dependency counselors who run the two programs say they offer vital information on the risks of alcohol and drug use, an important chance for kids to learn from their peers and, sometimes, an opportunity for intervention in serious substance abuse problems. To their minds, the recent addition of the screener, who determines which kids end up where, has made Missoula's response to its underage drinkers more flexible and effective.
But a number of the kids ordered into the programs look at them as just another part of their punishment for violations they typically consider more a matter of bad luck than bad judgment.
While none of the half-dozen kids who spoke to the Independent over the past week about their Insight experiences questioned the programs' sincerity, they doubt the value of the instruction, the honesty of the discussions, the morality of the laws that put them there and, in some cases, their own commitment to changing their ways.
The story of Sarah and Melody (note: the last names of the minors interviewed for this article have been withheld) isn't exactly typical; they found a slightly more dramatic way to get busted than ending up at the wrong kegger at the wrong time.
"Oh, this is a good story," Sarah begins. "We were skinny-dipping at the Red Lion pool. It was about three in the morning, which was dumb, and we were pretty drunk, which was even dumber. There were about eight of us, and the boys, not the girls, were making a lot of noise. We had been on our way to Taco Bell, and suddenly we just saw the pool...."
This late-night adventure led to a predictable appearance by Missoula's Finest; by their own admission, the two Hellgate High School students got off easy. The police didn't write tickets for nakedness, trespassing or curfew violations, deeming the possession citations sufficient.
The judge, acting on the more-or-less automatic recommendation of court screener Linda Walrath, ordered the pair to complete Insight I. This week will be Sarah's fourth; despite the fact that the tickets were written in midsummer, Melody has yet to begin the program. She's on the long waiting list brought about by what one facilitator describes as an acute shortage of other trained adult instructors. In the meantime, she's drawn another MIP citation.
"They're not going to put me in Insight II," she says. "Apparently, since I haven't had Insight I, I didn't have the information I needed to make an informed decision about drinking."
If both Sarah and Melody make it through Insight I, they'll join hundreds of their peers as graduates. According to Kay Hoag of Community Care, the nonprofit treatment provider that runs the program, 173 kids completed the course last year. In order to pass, kids must uphold an honor contract to remain drug- and alcohol-free during the eight weeks, and may not have more than one excused absence.
Judging by Hoag's description of the typical Insight I student, it sounds like Sarah and Melody are about average.
"Here in Insight I we have kids that have maybe been experimenting, possibly using for a few years, but don't necessarily have a problem with dependency," she says.
"What the program does is give them education and a chance to reflect on how using alcohol and drugs might be affecting their lives. We ask them each week if they've been sticking to their contract. This gives them what we like to call a 'time-out,' a time for them to process in group how it affects relationships."
Hoag calls the 16-hour program, in which eight-member groups are guided by two adults, the most comprehensive in the state. She says the curriculum, redesigned a few years ago by counseling students at the University of Montana, is geared to be "kid-friendly," to encourage discussion and interaction and not to overwhelm kids with moral instruction.
"What we don't want is for facilitators to stand up and preach to them," she says. "We do want them to give information the kids might not have had before about how drugs affect their bodies and help them explore what it is, what this usage is, in their lives. We want them to know that their decision-making skills are the first to go out the window under the influence."
Terry Ripke, a social worker at Big Sky High School who works as a facilitator, stresses that each instructor has a different style, so each group receives a unique raft of opinions and perspectives.
"I don't think that kids who come through here will stop drinking. But my expectation is that maybe they'll think a little more. Kids tend to think drinking has certain positive aspects, making you more sociable and able to overcome shyness and so forth. They don't think about the bad things that can happen."
Ripke seconds Hoag's opinion that the vast majority of Insight I students don't have a problem with alcohol.
"Eighty percent of the kids that come through Insight are normal, decent kids," he says. "Insight I isn't really therapy. In most cases, they don't have problems with alcoholism, but what we really try to focus on is the consequences of their actions. Kids often don't think past the next weekend, the next party, but I try to get them to realize that they're making choices that can lead to certain results."
Hoag and Ripke's assessment that the average kid they see doesn't have a problem with alcohol is echoed in the main complaint of the kids themselves, namely that a first-time sip of beer can call down the same consequences as a heavy drinking career. Since enrollment in Insight I is automatic on the first offense, some question the value of Walrath's role as a screener.
"When I went to the court screener," Sarah says, "I felt like she'd made up her mind that I was an alcoholic already. But I think she bases a lot of her decisions on attitude, and I just wasn't having a very good day."
Walrath, the first ever to hold the $27,000-a-year position (which is funded in part by a grant from the state Board of Crime Control), says the law leaves her little choice but to recommend even those with the most mild drinking records for Insight I.
Using a standard checklist for every interview, Walrath checks on family problems, long-standing substance abuse, school performance and emotional and psychological stability among other things. The list is split into categories according the seriousness of the problems Walrath's probing might uncover. Three checks under the first category lands the interviewee in Insight I; three under the second leads to Insight II. Walrath, trained as a chemical dependency counselor herself, also has the option of recommending even more intensive, one-on-one clinical assessments.
She sees about 40 kids a month, about two-thirds of whom go to Insight I for a total annual enrollment of about 320. She says she'd like to be able to be more flexible with individual cases, but that the law demands consistency. She doesn't view the system as unnecessarily punitive, however.
"Almost always, the parents are concerned that I think their kids are bad kids," she says. "I don't think they're bad kids. It's a learning experience. In most cases, they don't have a problem. At the same time, Insight I isn't going to hurt them. Sometimes the kids will say, 'Well, I've already gotten all this information in health class.' I answer that with, 'Well, sometimes we don't absorb everything in health class.'"
In addition to the group discussions and honor contract, Insight I brings parents into the process at a two-hour orientation and two additional sessions. This facet of the program is a relatively new addition, and Hoag says most of the parents cooperate. The facilitators that lead the parent groups don't involve themselves with the kids' sessions and don't compare notes with their facilitators.
According to Cheryl Minnick, who runs one parent group, she and her partner try to explain the lingo and symptoms of drug use to parents who range, in her words, "from people who have no idea what's going on to people who are been-there-done-that." They also try to arm the parents with skills to deal with their kids' behavior on their own.
"Studies have shown that there are three things parents can do to reduce their kids' likelihood to do drugs and alcohol," she says. "First, there can be more supervision and less freedom. Second, you should continually, continually express how you feel on the subject. Third, there needs to be bonding, a process of opening communication between parents and children."
She admits that asking parents to curtail the freedom of people who, in many cases, will be legal adults in a short time is no mean request. Still, she believes more attentive supervision can help cut down on drinking even among high school seniors.
"If your gut instinct says something's up, something is probably up," she says. "When you go out of town, sometimes it's not even your kid. Sometimes the kid's friend comes over, then the friend's friend comes over, and before you know it, there's beer, there's music and there's a party."
At the end of the program, the question remains: Does Insight I work?
The opinions of Insight's administrators and the kids who spoke to the Independent vary significantly.
Hoag says that, in an anonymous telephone survey given graduates two months after they complete the program, most kids say Insight I helped them.
"The response in general is that it's been beneficial. Many make comments that it would be a good program for their friends to go through," she says. As with the honor contracts, Hoag's willing to take the kids at their word.
"We have no way of knowing whether or not they're lying, but our sense is that they're not," she says. "If they do admit to breaking their contracts, they don't get kicked out of the group, but it is a chance for us to ask them why they did that."
The kids, on the other hand, all sing similar tunes. They criticize the curriculum as being a repeat of rhetoric that didn't work the first time when they heard it in health class. They say the honor contract is a largely empty promise that no one keeps. Finally, they say that being forced to take classes for an offense that many of their peers get away with stigmatizes them and stirs resentment.
"The only 'rehabilitative' aspect of it was that kids couldn't drink for the two hours that they were actually at the meeting," says Leif, who went through Insight I after getting an MIP during his junior year in high school. "Aside from that it didn't seem to have any effect other than punishment."
Sarah, for her part, says she's kept up the sobriety contract during the month she's been in the program. As for the information doled out, she says it's nothing new.
"I don't think this is something I need," she says. "I just want to get it over with."
That sentiment is echoed by Lagan, another veteran of Insight I. In addition to criticizing the curriculum, he says he feels that Hoag's faith in the honesty of the students is misplaced.
"I definitely got the impression that most people lied their way through it," he says. "While I was in Insights I, during the last session they took each of us out of the room individually to talk about our attitudes, our cooperation, and our situations with drugs and alcohol.
"While the facilitators were gone, everybody else was buzzing about how many times they'd been drunk during the whole program, how it was bullshit and they'd been getting wasted every weekend.
"Plus, when we'd tell them we hadn't been drinking, that we'd adhered to the contract, they would say, 'You're high school students, you should be going to parties and drinking, that's normal.' It was all information we'd gotten in school anyway, and it contradicted itself."
Regardless of whether Insight I works, it's a fact that most graduates don't end up in Insight II. This new program, in its second year, is more intense, more restrictive and more than twice as expensive as its kinder, gentler elder cousin.
According to Peg Shea of Turning Point, the nonprofit that runs Insight II, the program came together at a time when the way underage drinkers were dealt with by the cops and courts was in flux.
"A couple of things happened at about the same time. The first thing was, Youth Court was able to make itself no longer responsible for following up on MIP citations," she says. "There were those in the community concerned that those kids would not be attended to, that there wouldn't be effective consequences.
"At the same time, the state Board of Crime Control was looking to give grants to innovative programs to curb juvenile delinquency. Now, juvenile delinquency is a term that encompasses a lot of different things, including MIPs, which are status offenses. They're seen as a possible gateway into other behavior."
Insight II developed through a series of task forces and coalitions, becoming the logical successor to Insight I and drawing on the same complex web of funding. According to Peggy Seel of the Office of Planning and Grants, it's difficult to assess how different streams of money -- from the state, the city, Missoula County and the nonprofits' own reserves -- come together. She estimates that both Insight programs together spend $57,000 a year, including Walrath's salary but not tuition money.
According to Shea, the $120 fee charged to the involuntary participants of Insight II is up from last year's $100 charge, with the increase going to cover the costs of urinalyses and scholarships for low-income kids and urinalysis.
Unlike Insight I, the goal of the second program, according to Shea, is to intervene in serious dependency problems as they develop and prevent the bloom of other difficulties that result from hard-core drinking and drugging. She acknowledges that this approach might ride a little hard on kids whose second MIP was no more the product of addiction than their first, but also points out that there are those on the other end of the spectrum to worry about.
"We can't help the outlying people on either side, the people that absolutely have no problem and the people who are too deep into their addiction to even accept help," she says.
"Even in the best of scenarios, you'll have people who just say, 'Y'know, you're full of shit and I don't want to be here.' In those cases, we have what are called therapeutic discharges. This person is just not ready to accept any kind of treatment or help."
All the kids in Insight II, whether they're on the verge of succumbing to addiction or just got unlucky twice, must submit to two unannounced urine tests during the 10-week program. The test doesn't pick up alcohol, in most cases, after 36 hours, but a positive test for other drugs means getting kicked out of Insight II and being placed in Turning Point's regular rehab program.
As for the rest of Insight II, Lagan, who drew a second MIP when a party he was at got busted, describes a typical session:
"Just like in Insights I, the first thing in every Insights II session is checking in, telling the facilitators whether or not you've been substance-free for the past week. When I was in Insights II, there were two occasions when kids admitted to drinking alcohol during the class. One of them was taken out of class immediately and put into Turning Point.
"She said that a friend of hers had come in from out of town and they'd split part of a bottle of vodka. The other one said she'd had a glass of wine at Thanksgiving, and they said they were seriously considering her for Turning Point.
"After check-in, there was always an agenda. All the sessions dealt at least a little bit with the physical aspects of drug and alcohol use, and there were cooperative activities, like making a huge chart on a dry-erase board of each person in the class's history with drugs and alcohol.
"The general conclusion they seemed to be driving at was that people start doing cigarettes and alcohol, which they term 'gateway drugs,' then proceed to heavier and heavier drugs. Eventually you were going to get yourself in trouble legally, in terms of dependency or academically."
While Lagan sums up his time in Insights I as "ridiculous," he did see some value in Insight II's rigor -- though not any that applied to him.
"There were some very serious discussions," he says. "Because there were some kids who actually did have severe problems with drugs and alcohol. I felt Insight II was sincerely trying to help those kids with serious problems. But even so, they weren't real receptive to adjusting their own agendas to individual situations. It was like they were saying, "This is your problem, this is why you have this problem, this what's going to happen to you unless you deal with it.'"
His ultimate criticism is the same voiced again and again by Insight veterans interviewed for this article: That, even as others with more serious problems got some help they needed, he himself felt more punished than educated by the programs.
"During both programs, I was super stressed out with school, and super busy with academic work," he says. "There were a couple times that things would come up that were school-related, and I'd just have to forget about it because I had to go to Insight that night. What's the benefit of that?"
Shea, Hoag and Walrath would all like to dispel such feelings, hoping that kids see the educational point of the program and get over their feelings of resentment. All of them stress that it's not their desire to punish anybody, only to better prepare kids for the choices they'll be confronted with during the spiral of senior-year parties and the long collegiate haul beyond.
"Hopefully it's a positive consequence," Shea says. "It has the intention of helping. The kids might have a different perspective. If nothing else, maybe that little seed will get planted and they'll realize that there are consequences to all their decisions.
"As a society, we've said, right or wrong, that there's a magic age and until you reach it, you're not allowed to do certain things. Our norms and rules must be respected and there have to be consequences."
Photos by JEFF POWERS
Hellgate students Sarah and Melody were both recommended to Insight I after an ill-fated evening of drinking that ended in a hotel swimming pool.
Insight I director Kay Hoag says most teens who enter the program are good kids who just need to learn to make informed choices about their alcohol and drug use.