Beerly enough discipline for high school bingers

It’s not often that the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, is featured in The Drudge Report, the internet nexus of political gossip and breaking news. But this week it highlighted the drinking habits of Bar Harbor teenagers. According to the Bangor Daily News, 60 high schoolers from Mount Desert Island Regional High School gathered at an out-of-the-way gravel pit to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with an ocean of beer. “You probably could have made your month's mortgage payment on your house just with the returnables,” said one of the police who broke up the party.

The bash was organised with the help of the personal web sites MySpace and Facebook which gave directions to an out-of-the-way gravel pit. As police rounded up the students, other revellers continued to drink until it was their turn to get busted.

What amazed the local police was that the girls and boys were unafraid of what their parents would say. This is not just a problem in rural Maine. Many American parents have stopped demanding sobriety and draw the line only at drunk-driving. As a result, house parties have become a regular teen social outlet. At best, the host parents collect car keys from the party-goers, but they still provide alcohol, only asking that they stay the night if they overdo it.

A Washington DC suburban publication, Bethesda Magazine, recently investigated the habits of local teens from public and private schools in wealthy Montgomery County, in Maryland. It cited Captain Thomas Didone, of the local police: "Over the past few years the problem has increased primarily due to parents hosting parties where alcohol is present and not allowing officers access so that we can safely close the party. When we can't issue citations and call the teens' parents, they continue going to parties and remain at risk."

If parental resolve slackens, do teens at least fear their high school principal? Not in Bar Harbor. Principal Sally Leighton says that only students who participate in extracurricular athletics or clubs can be punished. They have to sign a good behaviour contract which penalises off school grounds drinking with only a 15-day suspension from the activity or sport.

What about the coaches? Don’t high schoolers fear them? Yes, but serious parties are held between seasons, when good behaviour contracts lapse. This legalistic approach suggests that contracts are not building blocks of character but mere guarantees that the coaches will have players in peak physical condition.

What about the law? That, too, is ineffective. The worst outcome for a night of drunkenness is a fine or community service. Only the poorest families will be hurt by fines and community service is a badge of honour for high school rebels, provided they can still play sports and participate in extracurricular activities.

Well, if parents, principals and police fail to put the fear of God in teens about underage binge drinking, what about God himself? How many at the gravel pit party were believers? Statistically speaking, probably not many. According to a 2001 study in the reputable journal Addiction1, American teens with religious convictions are 2.8 times less likely to drink than teens with no religious convictions. The same study revealed that regular churchgoers are 23.5 per cent less likely to try alcohol. At least there's somebody out there who can help teens stay sober.

Some states are cracking down on permissive parents. In the 1990s 35 states passed “social host” laws, making parents liable for drunk teens who cause injury or death on the road. More recently 15 states have begun implementing parental education programs.2  A few states fine parents or place them on probation. But with the people closest to teens so reluctant to discipline them, can we really hope to deal with the problem effectively?

Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.

(1) I. Sutherland and J.P. Shepherd. "Social Dimensions of Adolescent Substance Use. Research Report." Addiction. 2001, pp 445-458.
(2) “Underage drinking laws take aim at parents”. Oct 13, 2004.


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