Drinking still a problem in Lincoln high schools

Southeast Lincoln High School sophomore Jessica Greer, sophomore Brendon Henning and principal Pat Hunter-Pirtle walk through the school's hallways. Lincoln public schools encourage good behavior in students, including dealing with alcohol.

? When Jessica Greer walks down the hallways of Southeast Lincoln High School, the sophomore hears fellow students talking about their weekend plans — where they’ll go to drink and smoke.

She also hears her principal working to address the problems of alcohol among students and she sees the signs around school that serve as reminders.

“We have a new saying that is, ‘Living above the line,’ that expects students to be responsible and respectful,” said Greer, a sophomore at Lincoln Southeast High School.

A banner with the slogan, written above a bold line, hangs prominently in the school’s cafeteria. The principal works to help students “live above the line” by encouraging them to achieve above minimum standards.

It’s not just college kids with alcohol-related problems in this town, home the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. High-risk alcohol use also is “a significant problem” among high school students and their parents, according to Pat Hunter-Pirtle, Southeast principal.

Hunter-Pirtle, known by his students as HP, says he’s been doing his part to tackle the alcohol problem before students head on to college, by working directly with students and inviting parents to regular meetings to discuss the issue.

“You can start to change people’s lifestyles, by addressing it, getting people to talk about it, making people aware of it,” the principal said.

The consequences for drinking illegally start early in Lincoln public schools, where students are automatically suspended for five days and can be referred for expulsion if they’re caught drinking at school or a school-hosted event.

“We take a strong stand on that,” said Hunter-Pirtle.

Southeast sophomore Brendon Henning remembers when a couple of girls were suspended last year for being caught drinking vodka from a water bottle during class.

“That message went around the school pretty fast,” Henning said. “They give announcements before football games and before homecoming or prom about not showing up drunk or high. You’ll get kicked out; they’ll turn you over to the police.”

Though his students are beginning to get the message, Hunter-Pirtle said his efforts have only made a small dent in the problem.

Now he’s working to build partnerships with UNL and the Lincoln community, so the school can start mirroring their efforts to reduce binge drinking among students.

“When you start to do some of those partnerships, people get to talking. … It doesn’t make you feel like you’re out on an edge by yourself,” said Hunter-Pirtle. “Before we didn’t discuss it, we dealt with it, but we just assumed we couldn’t do anything about it.”