Prom, graduation bring warnings

Schools, police caution teen-agers about risks of drinking and driving

Howard County

May 15, 2002|By Megan Watzin | Megan Watzin,SUN STAFF

A figure dressed in black from head to toe enters the high school classroom and silently points to its next victim. Students watch as their classmate is escorted out by the white-faced Grim Reaper. The victim soon returns, with a single black tear painted on one cheek - no longer able to speak and pronounced dead for the day.

That ghostly image is not a scene from the latest teen horror flick, but is one element in an aggressive effort to help Maryland high school students make it through one of the most dangerous periods of their lives.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds. And 30 percent of these young drivers killed in crashes during 2000 had been drinking, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report shows.

Despite such grim statistics, teens often forget their mortality, making themselves extraordinarily vulnerable during prom and graduation season.

To counter that tendency, schools, police, PTAs and safe-driving advocates are reminding students and their parents of the dangers of driving and drinking, and to provide safe places to go and things to do on prom night.

Students are encouraged to rent limousines or have their parents chauffeur them to avoid reckless and drunken-driving situations. Parents are encouraged to take steps to keep alcohol out of the limos.

"Our recommendation is for parents to talk to the limo company and the limo driver to make sure that drinking will not be permitted in the limo, to make sure that alcohol stays out of the kids' hands," said Monica Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Century Council, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes awareness of underage drinking and teen safety.

The State Highway Administration reminds teens and their parents that Maryland is a zero-tolerance state for teen drinking and driving.

While many parents sit up late prom night worrying, they could be unknowingly contributing to their teen-agers' liquor experimentation, experts warn. In a 2000 survey, the Century Council found that 52 percent of teen-agers obtain alcohol from their parents or their friends' parents.

"It's important, particularly at this time of year, for parents to open a dialogue with their kids to explain to them the dangers of underage drinking. I'm not convinced that the kids don't want to listen. ... Unfortunately, parents aren't having the kind of frequent and direct conversations that they should have," said Maria Tildon, senior vice president of the Century Council.

In Howard County, the Grim Reaper sketch has been used at Centennial and River Hill high schools during prom season over the years as a way to remind students of their mortality. By playing dead for a day, student volunteers powerfully demonstrate to their peers what it would feel like if they lost a classmate in a drunken-driving accident because someone did not think before taking a risk.

"Our hope is that we will make them reflect on the fact that they are not invincible. I think that it does have an impact on many of our students," said Centennial Principal Lynda J. Mitic.

"I think it puts in front of the kids in a very real way, the reality of drunk driving and what it can do. If it helps only a couple kids out of the hundreds, it is certainly worth it," River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer said. While River Hill usually conducts this event each year, it was canceled this year after the death of a River Hill student in an automobile accident.

Schools also are holding pre-prom assemblies to remind students that their decisions carry consequences. One session this year at all 10 Howard County high schools and at other schools across Maryland featured an Ocean City police officer who described to students clearly and specifically the dangers of drinking and speeding at Senior Week, a popular celebration in Ocean City for new high school graduates.

Many Maryland students also are given a booklet that includes first-aid tips, underage-drinking laws and coupons.

"We certainly want them to celebrate - this is a momentous occasion - but we want them to celebrate safely. It has definitely been a success. Last year, we had over 7,000 participants," said Lois Twilley, project coordinator for Play it Safe, which is based in Worcester County.

Constance Lewis, principal of Howard County's Atholton High School, lost a son in an automobile accident and said that a speech she delivers at her school's annual pre-prom assembly makes a strong impression. "I speak to them about losing a child," Lewis said. "They don't ever want to put their parents through that. I think that makes a pretty good impression [on the students] because they know me. ... Quite frankly, I know they're not perfect, but the kids here are great and they tend to listen when I talk to them about drinking and speeding.

"I worry about kids not making it to the end of the school year," she said.

Another concern is that students can celebrate unsupervised by renting hotel rooms. Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay met with local hotel and motel managers before this year's prom season and encouraged them not to rent rooms to patrons younger than age 21. He made a similar appeal last year.

After the Oakland Mills High School prom Saturday at Ten Oaks Ballroom, the school's PTSA will sponsor a substance-free after party. All those attending the prom, and other seniors, will be granted free entrance to Columbia Gym - less than a mile from the prom.

"They could literally walk from the prom to the gym, which keeps them out of harm's way from the start of the prom until 5 o'clock the next morning," Oakland Mills Principal Marshall J. Peterson said. "They wouldn't even have to drive."

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