A Drunk At Age 12

When Shandra O'Connell was in sixth grade, she would get some liquor, put it in a fruit juice bottle and walk around school drinking.

Now 16, she has already gone through a very adult experience; she is a nondrinking alcoholic. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on an unusual school that has helped Shandra overcome her drinking.

Shandra is a student at Sobriety High in Minneapolis, which has no band, no cheerleaders, no football - and no drugs or booze either. Sobriety High tries to create a kind of reverse peer pressure, so that no one drinks or takes drugs. The school doesn't test for drugs.

"We work on a positive peer culture here," says Judi Hanson, the school's program director. "Here if you use drugs, you are no longer in the circle. So the support and the honesty comes from the kids themselves."

These students had serious problems. One student says that he drank a fifth of liquor every day. Many students say they started drinking when they were 12 or 13.

That can have serious long-term consequences. One recent national study found that kids who start drinking before they're 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than those who don't start until they're 21.

Judi Hanson is the program director for Sobriety High.
"I started drinking when I was 11, and I didn't start drinking for any kind of reason," Shandra says. "I just started drinking because a lot of my friends drank, and I could get liquor. So why not drink? I really enjoyed the way it made me feel. I really liked it."

At first, she says, she drank only on weekends. Her best friend's mother would buy it for her. Soon she was drinking almost every day.

"I'd keep on drinking and drinking. And then all of a sudden I'd just be passed out or black out," she says.

At the time, Shandra's mother, Linda Gruelke, was a divorced single parent, working full time. Shandra had been drinking for a year before Gruelke knew it.

"I didn't realize the changes that she went through," Gruelke says. "I realized the hair and the makeup, the more external, but it happens so gradually." Shandra continued to call and check in, even as she began to drink more and more, Gruelke says.

But the situation worsened. "There were times she was stumbling drunk and throwing up in my car and throwing up on the stairs," Gruelke says. "And that's just the most horrible thing, to have to take care of your little one." Gruelke didn't know what to do.

When Shandra was 12, she became pregnant. "I was hanging out with a lot of older people, nd when I was drunk, a lot of guys took advantage of me and, or I didn't care. You know, you're drunk; you don't care."

For a while, Shandra stopped drinking. But after the baby was born and put up for adoption, she started drinking again.

"She has a disease," Gruelke says. "She's addicted to alcohol. She can never have alcohol again because it'll kill her." Alcoholism runs on both sides of Shandra's family.

Finally Shandra realized that she needed help. She has been sober for almost two years. Like most of the kids at Sobriety High, she avoids her old school and her old friends.

She knows that she can't fully trust herself. Instead her days are filled with classes, counseling and concern about the future. Shandra knows some Sobriety High graduates who, having left the school routine, have returned to drinking.

But Shandra is confident about her future: "I'm truly, truly happy now that I'm sober," she says.

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Web story by David Kohn;