CONCORD -- When a high-ranking White House official asked a group of Bay Area teenagers what they thought about programs designed to educate young people about the dangers of drinking and drugs, Maris Degener didn't hold back.
"In high school, we have Red Ribbon Week, and we all get red ribbons, but (the administrators) never talked about alcoholism and dependency on alcohol," said the 15-year-old Clayton Valley Charter High student. "They talked about why it was bad, but they didn't talk about why you would even get into it in the first place, which I thought was a big lacking component. For a lot of kids, it's not just wanting to have fun."
That is the kind of feedback David Mineta, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy was looking for when he met with middle and high school students from Bay Point, Clayton and San Jose during a swing through California at the tail end of Alcohol Awareness Month.
With deep cuts in federal funding for alcohol and substance abuse programs, it is all the more important to spend scarce dollars on what works, he said.
Although Mineta said alcohol use is declining among 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide, many college campuses are concerned about high-risk drinking, including UC Berkeley and Dartmouth College, where sexual assaults have been associated with alcohol abuse.
The students shared their ideas about what was working and what wasn't, as well as what more could be done.
Maris, other students and youth advocates said it's important to address depression, poverty, peer pressure and emotional pain to understand problems that can drive people to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Riverview Middle School students from Bay Point impressed Mineta with their grass roots campaign to eliminate "alcopop," which is fruit-flavored alcohol sold in super-sized cans and bottles, frequently displayed just inside the front door of markets to entice young people.
"It's binge drinking in a can," said 12-year-old Laurie Quezada, who is working with a group of students to outlaw the beverages in Contra Costa County.
The teens told Mineta that seniors know which colleges and universities are "party schools" and some seek them out. Maris said one of her teachers told a class that young adults at his college did 21 shots when they turned 21, something the astute teen referred to as "alcohol poisoning."
Estefany Hernandez, 17, who attends Lincoln High in San Jose, said prevention programs should promote fun, sober alternatives to drinking.
Mineta said his office is expanding prevention efforts to include education and wellness campaigns that can help reducing bullying and increase academic performance. Riverview Middle School student Aamayah McCoy, 12, said part of the reason substance abuse is common is because popular kids do it.
But, Mineta had a strong comeback for those popular kids.
"You're awesome," he said. "You let them know. Tell them the White House said, 'You're awesome.'"
Theresa Harrington covers education. Contact her at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
More information about the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is available by visiting www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp.
Details about the Above the Influence campaign are at http://abovetheinfluence.com.
To see video clips from Dave Mineta's discussion with local teens, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.