Teen hotline could curb underage drinking

By DeeAnna Haney | Oct 27, 2013
Photo by: Heidi Warren Local members of Teen Institute, better known as the OTTERs, hold up sandwich boards with the hotline phone number at last weeks County Clash football game. From left to right: Courtney Wilson, Caleb Moon, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, Kathy Pearman, Matthew Lail's mother Carol Womack, Nate Plummer, Rob Womack, Brianna Plummer, MADD Representative Ellen Pitt, Jacob Pepin, Dine Plummer, Tyla Oellerich and Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton.

A new hotline created by a group of local teenagers is meant to get the word out that it’s better to “be a pal” than to let their peers get away with drinking alcohol and doing drugs.

The hotline — 828-356-APAL — links directly to sheriff’s office dispatch, where teens can anonymously report underage drinking and drug activity to law enforcement.

The idea for the hotline began during discussions in the DWI task force, made up of local law enforcement leaders, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, local MADD Director Ellen Pitt and more.

“A lot of times, kids know what is happening but they don’t know who to call for help,” Pitt said.

Diné Plummer, a junior at Pisgah High School, recently began a local chapter of the National Association of Teen Institutes, a coalition of programs to promote positive life skills for teens. The local group of about six high schoolers that make up the chapter call themselves the OTTERs, which stands for Outstanding Teens Teaching Everyone Responsibility.

“Basically, we go to workshops and learn about drug and alcohol situations, teen pregnancy, bullying and how to deal with those situations. Then we take that information back to counties and put it out into the schools,” Plummer said.

Heidi Warren, public information officer for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, is the advisor for the local chapter of Teen Institute. When she learned about the DWI task force idea to start a teen alcohol hotline, she knew the OTTERs would be the perfect group to put the plan into motion.

The group quickly agreed to be a part of the project and immediately came up with the appropriate phone number.

“We just thought ‘Be a Pal’ kind of went with the idea,” Plummer said.

Teens often know about parties where they know friends will be consuming drugs and alcohol, but they are afraid to tell law enforcement or an adult for fear of losing friendships. It's a common story that sometimes ends in tragedy.

The initiative for a hotline is one that is very close to the heart of Carol Womick, a Forest City mother who lost her 19-year-old son in an alcohol-related crash in May.

Her son Matthew Lail was riding in a car with a friend, both of whom had been drinking, when the driver lost control. The teens were ejected from the vehicle when it flipped about five times. A high rate of speed, alcohol and failure to wear seatbelts were all factors in the accident, which killed Lail.

“The boys were at a high school baseball game earlier that night where many people observed that they had been drinking,” Womick said. “However, no one reported this behavior to anyone. We learned all of this after the crash. We were already devastated by the loss of Matthew, but were astounded that people had observed that the boys had been drinking, yet did nothing.”

Had there been a way for Lail's friends to anonymously report his activity, she believes her son could still be alive today.

“The idea is not to encourage kids to snitch on one another, but if they are concerned about the safety and well-being of their friends, they can call this number,” Warren said.

The OTTERs are promoting the hotline by passing out posters and buttons at the high schools and middle schools in the county.

“People don’t want to tell on their friends, but I’d like everybody to think about it as they are saving their friends from a bad situation,” Plummer said.

Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton, one of the local supporters of the hotline, said just because somebody calls in to the hotline doesn’t necessarily mean law enforcement action will be taken. Sometimes counseling or other resources might be more appropriate.

Though it’s geared toward teens, the phone number can be used by anyone who might want to call with an anonymous tip.

“It’s not just a teenage hotline,” Sutton said. “You could have a teacher that didn’t want to get involved but wanted somewhere to take that concern.”

Pitt hopes that this initiative, which is being supported by the local ABC board and MADD, will prompt similar hotlines in counties across the state.

"In the end, if kids know who to call, it could save lives," Pitt said.

The Facts

Underage drinking is not a new problem — every year about 5,000 teens die as a result of alcohol, most commonly in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH).

Alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among youth nationwide, more than cigarettes or marijuana. By age 15, more than 50 percent of teens have had at least one drink. By age 18, that number increases to 70 percent.

According to the NIH, young people reach for the bottle as a result of peer pressure, increased independence or stress. In addition, many teens have easy access to alcohol. A recent study showed 93.4 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 14 who drank alcohol in the past month got it for free through family members, older friends or at home.

Because statistics show that teens aren’t going to quit drinking alcohol altogether, the new hotline will be there to perhaps prevent accidents from happening, said Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher.

“I believe that this is just another tool for us to use to curb the underage drinking issues that we face,” Christopher said. “This provides a safe alternative for people who want to let us know if there are parties or if there are people that are in possession of alcohol or drinking alcohol that should not be.”

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