SALT LAKE CITY — Bobbi Anderson remembers clearly trudging through a snow-covered field one February morning and coming upon the lifeless body of her son, Braxton, lying shirtless in a pool of mud.
Not far away, life was fading from Braxton's friend, who had also shed his clothes and collapsed in a patch of frozen grass, bewildered from intoxication and hot with the onset of hypothermia.
It was an unthinkable end to a frantic search that began at a friend's house and lasted all night.
The evening before, Anderson had dropped off her 16-year-old son at a friend's house with plans to pick him up later. It was nothing unusual. Braxton loved being with friends, and his mother trusted him. He was a straight-A student on track to graduate early.
But when he didn't respond to his mother's repeated calls and texts, she knew something was awry. She began carefully tracking his whereabouts, driving from house to house, asking friends and parents if they'd seen her son. Eventually, Braxton's phone stopped taking calls, and the search intensified.
About 8 a.m. the next morning, Anderson reached one of Braxton's friends, who said he had lost his wallet while walking through a field with Braxton that night. By the time they found Braxton's black and blue body, he'd been dead for several hours. His friend was taken to a hospital, where he spent the next several weeks recovering from alcohol poisoning.
While in the hospital, the friend admitted he and Braxton had been drinking vodka and energy drinks purchased by his sister. Both teens had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27.
It was Braxton's first drink.
"It's one drink, one time. It can happen to anybody. He's a straight-A student. He's graduating early. It's not like he's a bad kid. He was a good kid," Anderson said, reflecting on her son 4 ½ years after his death. "I don't know how many parents have said, 'My kid wouldn't do this. Not my kid.' And I go, 'Well, that's what I thought, too. Now I'm in this situation.'"
Tragic as it was, Anderson's story isn't far from situations other families in Utah could face. National and state research released this week shows alcohol is still the substance most frequently abused by young people in the U.S., and drinking is associated with the leading causes of death for children and adolescents, such as vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides.
And with 21 percent of the nation's youths having had more than a sip of alcohol before age 13 — that jumps to 79 percent when they enter 12th grade — researchers say parents should begin counseling their children about alcohol no later than age 9.
"We've always recognized that oftentimes parents start the conversation too late, and it's usually when all of a sudden the kid starts getting into problems," said Craig PoVey, prevention administrator for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health at the Utah Department of Human Services. "So in order to prevent that from happening in the first place, it really does need to start early."
"We start actually in elementary school with our prevention efforts," said Paul Edmunds, safe and drug-free schools coordinator for the Granite School District. "We'd love to see the number be zero and then not have kids get involved in underage drinking. That's why we keep persisting with prevention so that we can have healthy students that are ready and able to learn, and that's our focus."
A national report published Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics said children can start to think positively about alcohol between ages 9 and 13. Binging, or consuming four or five drinks in a two-hour period, was a problem for 50 percent of children ages 12 to 14 who tried alcohol.
Binging becomes even more common as students get older. Among 18- to 20-year-olds nationwide who said they drink, 72 percent said they binge, according to the national report. When binge drinking, adolescents 44 percent of the time said they drank hard liquor, especially vodka, and beer was involved in less than one-third of all reported binging episodes, according to the report.
About 30 percent of Americans ages 12 years or older — roughly 60.1 million people — binged within 30 days of the academy's survey, 14 percent of them younger than age 20.
In Utah, those numbers are lower and declining, but still troubling to researchers and educators. Almost 19 percent of students here said they had consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, according to a prevention needs assessment released by the Utah Department of Human Services on Tuesday.
The report surveyed 49,000 Utah students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades across the state. About 14 percent of high school seniors said they'd consumed alcohol within 30 days of the survey, as did 10 percent of 10th-graders and 3 percent of eighth-graders, according to the department's report.
Within two weeks of the survey, 8.1 percent of high school seniors said they binged on alcohol, as did 5.9 percent of 10th-graders, 2.6 percent of eighth-graders and 0.8 percent of sixth-graders. Overall, 4.2 percent — about 2,050 students — said they had binged within two weeks of taking the department's survey.
Of the students statewide who drank alcohol in the past year, 57 percent reported having got alcohol at a party, 51 percent said they got it from someone 21 or older, 31 percent said they got it from their home without their parents' permission, and 29 percent gave someone else money to buy it for them, according to the department's report.
Ironically, 59 percent of students who drank said they did so at home or at someone else's home, the very places where steps to prevent underage drinking are most effective, the report states.
PoVey and Edmunds say much of their prevention efforts focus on informing parents of possible outcomes for underage drinking, such as dangerous decisions, accidents and academic struggles. It's also a conversation about overall health, how alcohol consumption can lead to depression, social challenges and addiction to multiple substances, especially for youths.
"Anytime you put any kind of a chemical in a teenager's brain, it's going to take that brain longer to synthesize and balance back out. So a kid who gets drunk on a Friday, he's not 100 percent ready for school on Monday," PoVey said. "One of the reasons why binge drinking is so dangerous is that every time you binge, you're boosting that tolerance up, getting closer to an addiction."
Edmunds said the school district provides curriculum on the harmful effects of underage drinking for students of multiple grades, and students are also encouraged to get involved in extracurricular activities. Several high schools also offer a "safe graduation night," where students can celebrate completing high school in a supervised, alcohol-free environment.
But prevention efforts at school should be coupled with similar commitments at home, Edmunds said.
"The key really is the family involvement," he said. "The No. 1 deterrent for underage drinking is parent disapproval and communication. First of all, students knowing what the standard is for the parent and then parents knowing what the students are doing, who are the friends, what are the plans. All those things are going to help."
Braxton's mother and brother, Jayden, have shared their story with students and families in several states, hoping that parents will be more vigilant and youths will get a sense of what the consequences can be of trying alcohol just once. Now as Jayden enters college, he and his mother continue to keep lines of communication open.
"Stay really open and honest with them about sharing all the dangers and let them know and that you're there if they need someone to come get them, that if they need help, they have an option to call," Anderson said. "I've just tried to be really open and let him know that he can tell me everything. I might not agree with it, but I want him to be able to come to me with any problem."
Edmunds said there are multiple online resources for parents, such as parentsempowered.org, a Utah-based website that provides informational material and tips on providing guidance for children.
The pediatrics report found that 80 percent of teens said their parents are the biggest influence on their decision whether to drink, and that parental communication was 20 times more likely to reduce heavy drinking patterns.
In Utah, roughly 15 percent of students who indicated that their parents felt it was "very wrong" to use alcohol did so within their lifetime. However, 61 percent of students who said their parents somewhat agree with underage drinking had consumed alcohol previously, according to the Department of Human Services report.
PoVey said the conversation between parents and their children about drugs and alcohol will change as the kids get older, but starting early helps set a foundation of family expectations and an understanding of consequences.
"You're going to have a different message for a seventh-grader as you would a second-grader," he said. "'Don't put things into your body that aren't helpful.' Little messages like that and through example, you can teach your kids.
"It's not simply about teaching them not to drink, but making the right decision wherever they happen to be."
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