FEATURE: Identity Crisis

By on November 3, 2015

When teens struggle to find their place in a party town.

151104CoverFeatJackson, WY – It was one of those icy mornings when the roads are empty and Jackson feels like a ghost town. Driving around, you might pass one or two cars. Returning from a ski meet, 2013 Jackson Hole High School grad Morgan Comey was en route driving a friend home at 2 a.m. After a successful meet and exhausting bus ride, Comey was pulled over by a Jackson police officer. Foggy windows, Comey says, made the police officer suspicious. “He definitely thought we were doing something we weren’t,” Comey said. Eventually the officer was satisfied with Comey’s story. But while many motorists can attest to police encounters while driving in the wee hours, for Comey, the event sticks out in her head. Teens in Jackson, Comey says, are often classified as troublemakers.

As someone who grew up in Jackson, this author knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find things to do as a teenager. There’s no mall to hang out at, no cozy coffee shops that stay open past 6 p.m., no all-ages music venue, no community commons. Finding entertaining things to do with your friends in the winter if skiing isn’t high on the list can be near impossible. Knowing that, it’s no wonder why kids look forward to house parties on the weekends.

For all that Jackson has to offer the 21-and-up crowd, teenagers are finding it hard to find a foothold in a community that consistently assumes the worst of them.

Honoring the legacy

There is nothing revolutionary or exceptional about partying on the weekends in high school. We did it when I was growing up, my sister and my parents, too. Alcohol was not something we sought, but rather something that was simply present and part of the scene. We knew that what we were doing was illegal, but we were with our friends, more often than not in a safe environment in some house on the Westbank or Golf and Tennis. That experience mirrors the current generation of high schoolers, and will no doubt carry onto future generations.

“If we don’t drink and party, it’s like we’re messing up the flow,” said JHHS senior who we’ll call “Amy.”

“The kids before us did that and there’s a pressure to continue the legacy,” she said. “We look at some of the parties the older kids threw and are like, ‘How did they pull all that off?’”

Amy is an active student, a member of a handful of academic clubs and has participated in extracurricular activities in the past. She focuses heavily on her schoolwork because she wants to get into good colleges, but she still looks forward to a good house party every weekend.

“There’s always this mad scramble to figure out where the party is going to be,” she said. “If there isn’t a party that weekend, we come [into school] on Monday and are depressed. In the summer we can go camping and stuff like that, but during the school year, it’s like there’s nothing else for us to do in town.”

Amy said she wants more events that will allow her and her friends to just let loose. JHHS offers three school dances per year: Homecoming, Winter Ball and Prom. Amy feels like the dances are over-supervised and that there’s a constant paranoia that a chaperone or teacher is going to “bust anyone at any time.” Instead, she would love it if there was a place in town, such as the Pink Garter Theatre, that would host more all-ages events that aren’t being constantly monitored by authority figures.

“We need a venue that hosts us, a venue that trusts us and won’t babysit us,” she said. “There’s always going to be those kids who are going to get away with as much as they can when they’re being supervised by teachers, but to have a venue where we can just be ourselves would be awesome.”

But until that day comes, she said there will always be secret house parties.

Amy, along with two other students, asked for her name to be changed for this article because she feels like the JHHS administration has their eye out for those who step out of line, even describing going to school as “living in a police state.”

“Ben,” a student at Jackson Hole Community School has similar feelings. “It’s not like we’re just always partying, but that’s what a lot of people started assuming,” he said, “that we’re addicted to getting drunk.”

The watchful eye

JHHS student body president Bjorn Schou says growing up in a small town has both its upsides and its downsides when it comes to finding your identity.

“This town offers a lot of opportunities for kids that know what they want to do,” he said. “You can make connections that can help you follow your passion, but at the same time if you get caught doing something bad once, you get labeled as this partier.”

He says he has incredible respect for both law enforcement and the school administration, but feels like teens can be targeted in Jackson for simply being teenagers. He said the high school initially offered high school parking lot passes that were visible from outside the car, but because students were being easily profiled by police as JHHS students, they did away with the pass.

“[The police] would pull you over and interrogate you and ask, ‘Where’s the high school party tonight?’”

A Summit High School junior, “Maria,” says she feels pressured to attend parties because it’s “obviously the cool thing to do.”

“If you didn’t go to the party that weekend, you hear about it from your friends and it’s like a guilt thing, or like you missed out or something,” she said.

Bjorn added: “Yes, there’s some high schoolers that want to have fun and kick back, but not everyone should be seen that way. It’s a really hard topic to talk about because cops are out there for our safety, but they also overreach their grounds to pursue whatever lead they have to make sure nothing bad is happening. And there’s always the idea that the kids are doing something.”

Minor run-ins with authority, according to Bjorn, are what really damage reputations and encourage profiling. He hopes the community can start shifting toward trusting teens.

“We’re young adults and we’re trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing for the rest of our lives,” he said. “If respect is given, then respect comes back. This has been going on forever and it won’t stop unless there’s some way of communicating with and respecting teens.”

JHHS science teacher Andrea Overly was once a Jackson Hole student, and says she had similar experiences when she was a teen. When it comes to teens, “some adults and police expect the worst of them,” she said.

Overly says she is confident that Jackson business owners and nonprofits can do more to provide alternative activities for teens; ways to help them find their place in the community.

“If the community understood that these kids were looking for actual meaningful memories—something that 10 years from now they’ll be able to tell a story about—they would be more willing to offer opportunities to help encourage that,” she said. “Teens are worth the investment of giving them a safe place to hang out and be teenagers.”

Fabric of the community

Lieutenant Cole Nethercott of JHPD agrees that Jackson doesn’t offer many free hangout opportunities for teens.

“There is a lack of options for them,” he said. “I grew up in this community too, and I enjoyed what it had to offer, and there were less options then than there are now. I guess we had the bowling alley, but that’s the reality of a small community.”

When asked what he thought about teens feeling like they were living in a police state, he said he could understand the perception, but that police officers weren’t out to get them.

“We do our part to hold them accountable and proactively attempt to keep alcohol out of their hands,” he said. “This community tends to have a fairly liberal view on drinking, but education is key. I think we kind of turn the blind eye and say that’s part of growing up, but I think here it’s more so than in other communities.”

Nethercott pointed to the valley’s party culture as a vehicle to send mixed messages to youth. The community as a whole has a culture of not discouraging alcohol, he explained. Indeed, every year there are around 100 special events that serve alcohol.

“Alcohol is present no matter the event,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the culture of a ski community.”

When speaking about solutions that can help keep kids out of trouble and encourage them to find their place in Jackson, Nethercott says we need to change mindsets.

“We have to encourage an atmosphere where fun things can happen without alcohol,” he said. “That’s not something an individual or even a small group can do. It needs to be woven into the fabric of the community, and the fabric of the community right now is to party. Overall, I would tell you that the vast majority [of teens] are good kids and I think they would be receptive to the right alternatives if we knew what those were and if the funds were there.”

It can be said that teens in Teton County are incredibly fortunate for the options they have. There are at least 32 sports and clubs offered by Jackson Hole High School for its students. Dance and art classes are available at the Center for the Arts, but at a hefty cost. Every summer the Teton County Library offers a free Teen Summer Reading program, but according to Bjorn Schou, it’s not what teens need.

“No one says, ‘I want to hang out at the library this summer,’ when they could just stay home and hang with their friends,” he said. “Or go camping or go to the lake. There are other pressing things.”

The challenge, then, comes down to what kind of alternatives the community provides for teens to give them the kind of safe hangout space they’re going to love, without the constant watchful eye of authority. Though how many adults would get on board with this idea?

151104CoverFeat-3Mayor Sara Flitner doesn’t think the community’s authority figures are overstepping their bounds.

“If it means keeping our kids safe and alive, they have my full support in hounding the kids,” she said. “I just could not love my kids more than I do, just like any other parent. I never want to be skeptical of what they’re telling me, but as a parent I have to stay skeptical to keep them safe.”

She admits that because she is a mother, she tends to personalize a lot of the struggles that teens in the community are facing, the main one being alcohol. But despite the perception that some teens have about their own identity in the community, she feels that their experiences can be attributed to simply growing up.

“That’s part of adolescence,” she said, “to push the boundaries, and develop independence and good choice making skills. You can’t do that unless you’re exploring those risks.”

But Flitner acknowledges this area’s role in fostering casual attitudes. She says she agrees with Nethercott – that partying is woven into the Jackson tapestry.

“[Partying] is a big part of Jackson’s culture, the ski culture, the recreation culture, the summer fun culture. It’s a challenge that gets factored into everything,” she said. “But as a mom, my biggest focus is addressing my family’s needs. We’ve made sure our kids have jobs and encouraged them to pursue activities they are interested in.”

Flitner said that easing up on authority interactions isn’t necessarily going to change kids’ behaviors.

“The best thing we can do for teens is be aware of the fact that they’ll make mistakes, because that’s how they’ll learn. That doesn’t mean they are bad kids. Really, we just need better dialogue. We need them to understand that we love them and we want them to be healthy.”

While Flitner noted a multitude of clubs and activities offered to teens, she agrees that there is a definite lack of free, non-academic programming in the valley.

A home for all-ages

Dom Gagliardi would love to see the Pink Garter Theatre as a more age-friendly venue.

“[Teens] are pretty hip to what’s going on in the music world,” he said. “I think a lot of people over 21 could learn from high school kids about what’s hip and popular out there.”

Since opening the Pink Garter, Gagliardi has hosted a handful of all-ages shows that have seen varied levels of success, everywhere from packed houses to only 30 or 40 people. The Head to Head shows have been particularly well-attended. He’s looked at venues like the Fox Theater in Boulder, Colo., that host a large number of all-ages shows, trying to see if a similar model would work for his venue.

“It just makes their business more viable,” he said. “Having all-ages shows would definitely help us out too. Plus, I think it’s good for the community and it gives kids something to do.”

However, Gagliardi explained that there is a stipulation on their liquor license that doesn’t allow anyone under 21 to be in the same space as alcohol-wielding adults. Also, creating an all-ages show limits alcohol sales, which depending on the performer contract, is what makes or breaks the financial success of a show. Though having teens at the events would assist in promotion, he said.

“The all-ages shows we have done have gone pretty well, mostly because the teens do the promoting for you. They want to go where their friends are going,” Gagliardi said.

Gagliardi maintains that teen-focused events are a gamble though, as a good chunk of the business relies on income from alcohol sales.

“If we open the doors and turn on the sound system it becomes hard if only 20 or 30 kids show,” he said. “But we definitely, as a venue, are open to doing straight-edge events too, but we get kind of caught up in trying to keep the business going, and generally that always involves alcohol.”

151104CoverFeat-4However, Gagliardi feels like the Pink Garter could be a really great home for teens if the community was willing to help out with funding.

“What it comes down to is that the school funds three dances per year, and it’s hard for us to take on that kind of funding,” he said. “If it wasn’t just on us money-wise, it would be easier for us to plan these kinds of events without feeling like we were taking on a huge risk.”

He also feels that we need to put kids at the top of fundraising in the valley.

“Put that together as a plan and say, ‘We need a venue’ and I’ll step up,” he said. “There’s a lot of planning that will have to be involved, there’s dates, there’s organization. There should be a team of kids assembled that are getting out there trying to make that happen. Because it should happen. There’s just not a lot of other options.”

Striking out

Teton County Parks and Recreation does offer activities and clubs for middle schoolers, but not for high schoolers. When I worked as the library’s teen program coordinator this summer, I spoke with a rec center employee who told me that high-school age teens are extremely busy and while they had offered programs in the past, their turnout was low.

A bowling alley, Hole Bowl, has plans to open in Winter 2016 at 980 W. Broadway near Lucky’s. Jessica MacGregor hopes to fill a niche in the community with the new spot.

“A major drive for me in opening a bowling alley in Jackson is for the kids and teens,” she said. “We are raising three children in Jackson and felt a need for more indoor entertainment.”

By adding billiards and a foosball table, the bowling alley will honor the spirit of the town’s previous bowling alley, Jackson Bowl, which burned down in 2001.

“Our goal is [to provide] a safe and comfortable environment for everyone,” she said.

Because the Hole Bowl has a restaurant that will serve food as well as alcohol, the business does not run into the same stipulation as Gagliardi due to having a “pour room” clause in the liquor license. This would allow both underage non-drinkers and adult drinkers to enjoy the same space. She says teens will be able to enjoy the bowling alley from open to close; right now the closing hours are planned for 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. At this time, MacGregor is uncertain whether or not teens will need a parental waiver to bowl on their own.

“I think Jackson can be challenging for kids and teens that aren’t into the outdoor activities that this beautiful area provides,” MacGregor said. “The best thing that our community can do is support those places that do provide indoor activities for our youth.”

It’s what we do here

Teens in Jackson have a unique challenge trying to find their place in their hometown, in a community that provides few non-sports alternatives for more than 1,500 middle schoolers and high schoolers. And all in a community that is so laidback about alcohol consumption that it has booze at almost every public event.

“We’re looking at the adults in our town who ski a lot and drink a lot and we mimic that kind of thing,” Amy said. “Once you graduate you have that to look forward to, because that’s all you see.”

Overly explaned: “When you look at who shows up to the Teton Gravity Research premieres and the more expensive shows, the kids are there because it’s an opportunity for them to do something different with the community and they’re actually welcome there. And they’re excited about it. It’s something of meaning and substance that they’re welcome at, and of course they’re going to take the opportunity. But again, they’re surrounded by people who are drinking so it’s a Catch-22.”

Taking a look at the 2014 Wyoming Prevention Needs Assessment survey, teens in Teton County are among the most common students in the Cowboy State to drink alcohol. Surveyed students in 10th and 12th grade were asked the question, “On how many occasions have you had beer, wine, sweetened, or hard liquor to drink during the past 30 days?”

According to the survey summary, alcohol remains the most commonly used substance across grade levels, with 74 percent of surveyed Teton County 10th graders reporting consuming alcohol at some point and 45 percent reporting drinking in the last 30 days. Fifty-five percent of surveyed Teton County 12th graders reported consuming alcohol in the last 30 days.

Blazing a new path

151104CoverFeat-2What it boils down to is that if underage drinking is an issue we’re trying to address—which, according to Nethercott, it is—then it would be in the community’s best interest to invest in teens and work to offer safe, free alternatives, such as the bowling alley and more robust teen programming. Sure, even if a center was built or the Pink Garter became the new teen hangout, there would still be house parties and camping gatherings. So perhaps the answer is a teen-centric nonprofit dedicated to providing safe, non-academic events for the teenagers in the valley.

While some might say, “It was no different for me when I was growing up,” others would argue that Jackson’s robust drinking culture places teens in a unique position. The question then becomes, should teens be demonized for following a legacy or should this community work on creating a new example for them to follow? PJH


About Andrew Munz

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