Prom time invites fresh worries about teen drinking.
Even though many teens may drink plenty on a nothing-to-do Saturday, prom night offers greater temptations than other evenings, say parents, teachers and drug abuse professionals.
"This is the time of year when a young person is more vulnerable to drinking and driving. They are ready to be adults," says Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, and some kids think drinking is a sign of adulthood.
"Kids [who may not normally drink] are at parties . . . and everyone else is doing it, so they drink, too," says Scott Drucker, a senior at Pikesville Senior High School and president of his school's chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD).
Senior prom is, after all, still a big deal -- a rite of passage, a celebration of youth come of age.
This year prom season -- usually late March to June -- has fallen in the midst of rising national concern about teen-agers and alcohol. Surgeon General Antonio Novella recently issued a report linking teens' alcohol use with higher crime and dropout rates and increased sexual activity. Locally, the problem of teen drinking was brought home last August by the death of 15-year-old Brian Ball at a drinking party in Salisbury.
Growing, too, is acceptance of those who may not wish to drink -- for health or for safety reasons -- among all age groups. "The social acceptance [of teetotaling] in this country has changed tremendously," says Arlene Cundiff, who coordinates a safe-prom program for the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond.
In many adult circles, it is no longer thought anti-social to ask for a soft drink at a cocktail party or to take away car keys from someone who has had too much to drink, she adds.
And although a federal survey of junior and senior high school students, released last June, showed at least 8 million teen-agers used alcohol weekly, attitudes about teen-agers and drinking are changing, says Mr. Gimbel.
No longer is it enough to urge kids not to drink and drive, he says, now the message is simply: "Don't drink."
To reduce prom-night carousing, many PTAs, in this area and across the country, are trying to entice students to attend alcohol-free post-prom parties by offering prizes donated by area businesses.
In Virginia, more than 300 such post-prom parties are being given this spring, and the program -- Operation Prom/Graduation: Celebrate Life -- has been translated into a 170-page manual of guidelines for others to emulate. More than 35,000 copies of that manual, now in its fourth edition, have been distributed to schools across the country, says Ms. Cundiff.
"It resolves the question of 'what are you going to do after the prom?' " she says. It proves to the teens that "you don't have to have alcohol, you don't have to have drugs to have a good time. It benefits every child in the community."
The success of the program is difficult to evaluate, says Ms. Cundiff. If calculated by the absence of alcohol-related accidents at prom and graduation time, "we've been very, very successful," she says.
Locally, many safe-prom programs are under way:
* The Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse sponsors Project Prom Night, a 10-year-old effort to educate prom-goers and their parents and to promote safe activities and behavior.
The project urges schools, PTAs, the police and businesses to deliver the same safety message to teens, and to offer alternatives to drinking parties, says Mr. Gimbel.
* In Baltimore, Project Prom is under way in about 15 high schools, says April Lewis, a secondary drug education facilitator for Baltimore City Public Schools. The program is different at each school but tries to alert students to the dangers of drinking and drinking and driving.
* In Baltimore County, the Office of Substance Abuse operates a hot line for reporting parties before they happen -- parties where alcohol will be available to teen-agers. The Baltimore County police follow up these reports -- and the parties are usually called off.
* Many businesses that cater to prom-goers -- florists, hotels, restaurants, limousine services -- have joined the don't-drink bandwagon by discouraging such behavior on their premises and in their promotional materials.
* An increasing number of parents -- once battered by the "everybody's doing it" argument -- are beginning to speak out against drinking and are taking action.
Many have pledged to have "safe homes," that is, homes in which alcohol and other drugs are not permitted.
These parents are reacting to others who may think it safer to have their teen-agers drink at home rather than on the road, and far safer for them to experiment with alcohol than other drugs. Some parents permit their children to have parties with alcohol, and some reportedly even provide it. "There are always certain parents who feel it's OK," says student Scott Drucker. (State law includes a $500 fine for a first offense of providing alcohol to a minor.)