Flourishing SADD chapters put Baltimore County teens on road toward safety

October 13, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Maryland State Police

At Randallstown High School, the most popular club is in the business of saving lives.

On Wednesday mornings, social studies teacher Juan Domenech can expect about 100 teens to show up for meetings in the cafeteria. It is the only room large enough to hold them.

Attendance is diverse -- the jocks, the freaks, the preps and grits (the teens' term for rural youths) -- but they are united by a single goal: to discourage fellow students from driving while drunk or high on drugs.

In a school of 1,400 students, such a large turnout is considered phenomenal, particularly at 7:20 a.m. But to these Baltimore County teen-agers, many of whom have learned of the tragic consequences of drunken driving firsthand, devotion is born of necessity.

"Any of my friends could get hit by a drunk driver," said Mindi Albert, a 10th-grader who lost an elementary school classmate to a drunken driver six years ago. "I hoped getting together like this could lessen that chance a little bit."

Their group is a chapter of SADD: Students Against Driving Drunk, the Marlboro, Mass.-based organization that has crusaded to reduce drunken-driving casualties and claims 25,000 chapters and 7 million members in middle schools, high schools and colleges nationwide.

This school year marks the 10th anniversary of SADD and its eighth in Baltimore County, where the organization has proved remarkably popular. Every Baltimore County high school, public and private, boasts a SADD chapter. No other urban subdivision in Maryland can make that claim.

Yet even today, a decade after its inception, SADD is not without its detractors. Critics claim it does not promote total abstinence from drinking or drug use and perhaps even facilitates abuse.

Their criticism centers on SADD's central premise, a contract between student and parent intended to prevent youngsters from getting in a car with a drunken driver -- or from driving if they have been drinking.

Called "Contract For Life," the agreement requires the teen-ager to call home for a ride or get some other ride to avoid a drunken-driving situation. In return, the parents are to comply, "no questions asked." They have the option of discussing it later.

The contract, critics contend, is the problem. It assumes that a student might be drinking or hanging around with other people who are drinking and creates an escape clause.

"All students know they shouldn't be drinking before they are 21. . . . That's the law," said Fran Amprey of the Maryland Department of Education. "If you say, 'Well, they're kids and they're going to mess up,' that's still saying it's OK to drink."

In Baltimore, SADD has been all but absent from the high schools. In its place has been SHOP -- Students Helping Other People. The program requires members to pledge a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.

More recently, a sister organization was created for middle schools, Students Helping Others and Understanding Themselves, or SHOUT. More than 120 schools in 21 subdivisions participate in the two programs, said Linda Ezrine, a state Education Department consultant.

"If you don't use drugs and alcohol, you don't have to worry about driving," said Reba Bullock, a curriculum specialist with the Baltimore school system. "Any way you look at it, these kids are underage. SADD has a mixed message."

Indeed, even SADD officials admit that times have changed. When SADD was created by a Massachusetts high school hockey coach who lost a star player to drunken driving, it was legal for 18-year-olds to drink in many states, including Maryland.

Debbie Packer of Kingsville was a senior at Perry Hall High School in 1983 when she became Baltimore County's first SADD president. Now a medical student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, she remembers how classmates scoffed at the program in the beginning.

"I think people thought it was a weenie idea," Ms. Packer $H recalled. "The average high school student didn't want to stop drinking at parties."

In the intervening years, attitudes toward drinking and driving have changed. Legal drinking ages have been raised and drunken-driving accidents, while still a leading cause of death among teens, have declined.

In 1981, 6,280 people between the ages of 15 and 19 died in alcohol-related crashes, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. By 1988, that figure had dropped to 2,170.

In Maryland, drunken-driving arrests of people under age 21 have fallen from 4,773 in 1982 to 2,674 last year.

"It's very uncool to drink and drive today," said Alicia Soriano, 17, a senior at Lansdowne High School and SADD chapter president. "I've been to parties and seen people drink, but they always get stopped if they attempt to drive."

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