When Austin High School senior Caitlyn Stanley created a Facebook group called "Free the Butterflies," she had no idea it would become a movement.
Touted as a way for individuals to emerge from a cocoon of struggles to reveal their inner beauty, it immediately struck a chord. Within weeks, hundreds of members were sharing intimate details about their life in a very public venue. Topics included underage drinking, bullying, depression and other social pressures for area teenagers.
Officials at Austin High School shied from the sensitive material — until school counselor Thor Bergland embraced it last fall.
While the Facebook page now has more than 1,400 members functioning as a peer support group, Bergland adopted some of those same principles to create a 12-member committee called Students Advocating for a Friendly Environment, or SAFE.
"School officials didn't want anything to do with it — it was too much for us," Bergland said of his initial reaction to Free the Butterflies. "We don't socially accept speaking about personal stories, but we're trying to create a safe — get it, SAFE? — place for people to talk about those things."
That's just one example of local officials working to raise awareness about underage drinking. According to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, 67 percent of senior males and 70 percent of senior females in Southeast Minnesota have consumed alcohol. The percentages drop to 43 percent and 42 percent in ninth grade, and 22 percent and 12 percent among sixth-graders.
"We just want to open the public's eyes," said Austin senior Sam Deyo, a SAFE member. "A lot of them don't realize what's happening with their teenagers."
"It's disconcerting to start with, but it definitely shows there's a need," said Meaghan Sherden, facilitator for the Alcohol Misuse Coalition for Olmsted County. "It gives a rare glimpse into the issues that are facing our youth."
Since the legal drinking age is 21, it's not unusual for law enforcement to get involved with such activity from minors. The Rochester Police Department issued nearly 2,000 citations between 2007-12 for underage alcohol violations, including 242 DWIs and 506 juvenile alcohol offenses, according to a report compiled by the records department.
Some of those become high-profile situations, such as last spring's incident at St. Charles High School. At the request of administration, the St. Charles Police Department tested 74 seniors after teachers reported concerns about inebriated students on the last day of school.
The situation prompted impassioned parental complaints and gave St. Charles a black eye, according to some students.
"On Facebook, some of the seniors were like, 'Haha, breathalyzers for breakfast,'" said St. Charles sophomore Hannah Doty. "It was embarrassing for the whole school."
Added classmate Cameron Schulz: "When people think about St. Charles, that's all they think about now."
Doty and Schulz are members of the Whitewater Coalition Group, which was created in collaboration between St. Charles and Dover-Eyota school districts for the 2011-12 school year after receiving a $1 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Those school groups, along with Olmsted County's coalition, are working to raise awareness of the toll taken by underage drinking.
"I think our ultimate goal, or mine anyway, is to see some of those (underage drinking) numbers start to decrease," said Jeremy Hildman, a Whitewater Coalition Group coordinator.
It remains an uphill battle.
Mark Kuisle, Century High School's activities director, says officials are "fighting the mentality that it's OK" to drink because previous generations grew up drinking and it was socially acceptable.
Rather than accepting the status quo, which often includes a booze-filled senior party to end the school year, St. Charles officials are exploring a sober alternative for this year's seniors — at Grand Slam in Burnsville.
Whether laser tag, mini golf, trampolines and skee-ball would trump alcohol remains to be seen, but Hildman is optimistic that the sober option will be embraced as a viable alternative.
"It's their last hurrah," Hildman said. "Instead of saying, 'Just don't drink,' we're trying to provide that other opportunity to go hang out and have fun with your buddies."