Nine private schools join forces to fight teen drinking, drug use

Leaders say problem is increasingly common

November 17, 2003|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

Saying that drinking has become so prevalent it's almost a rite of passage for Baltimore-area teens - one condoned by some parents - the leaders of nine prominent private schools have launched a wide-ranging campaign against alcohol and drugs.

In an unusual show of unity, the leaders of the Gilman School, the Bryn Mawr School, St. Paul's School and other schools say they want to change a weekend culture in which drinking, drug use and rowdy partying have become all too common. They are challenging parents to prohibit the use of alcohol by their children and to stop providing havens for teen-agers to drink.

Some parents were allowing students to drink at their homes, figuring that if they were going to be using alcohol, this might prevent them from drinking and driving, the leaders said.

Among the new policies and programs being considered: a student-assistance program similar to those used by many companies; counseling sessions; educational seminars for parents; and "parent contracts" stipulating that no alcohol is to be served to minors.

Students readily acknowledge the problem. Homes have been damaged by teen-agers crashing weekend parties where alcohol is flowing and adults are absent, they say. Word of an unchaperoned party spreads quickly among teens with cell phones and can easily get out of hand, they say.

"Parents are still in denial about the alcohol use, and students are making decisions they are not equipped to handle," said Jean Waller Brune, head of Roland Park Country School. She said the school leaders decided that instead of talking about alcohol and drug use, "we needed to do something together."

Brune and the other school leaders outlined the issue in a recent letter to hundreds of parents. Those who joined in signing the letter were Mercer Neale at the Boys' Latin School of Maryland, Maureen E. Walsh at Bryn Mawr, Lila B. Lohr at the Friends School of Baltimore, G. Peter O'Neill Jr. at the Garrison Forest School, Jon McGill at Gilman, David E. Jackson at the Park School, Nancy L. Eisenberg at St. Paul's School for Girls and Thomas J. Reid at St. Paul's.

The campaign against alcohol and drug use was prompted by Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, executive vice president of the Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, who spoke with school leaders last spring. The Meyerhoff charity, based in Baltimore, has donated up to $30,000 to pay for the programs at private schools.

Rubenstein said her son, Charlie, now 21, sparked her involvement. She learned after he graduated from a local private school that he had been smoking marijuana throughout high school.

Lohr, of the Friends School in North Baltimore, hopes the letter will put more pressure on the parents.

"This letter was not prompted by a tragic event," said Neale at Boys' Latin in North Baltimore. "It was prompted by concern."

O'Neill, of the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, said the goal is to coordinate with parents. "Schools alone can't solve the problem. We have to do it in partnership with the parents."

The educators said parents' responses to the letter have been overwhelmingly positive.

"Everyone has to be involved - older siblings, parents, schools, even the police," said Jim Greenfield of Columbia, whose son, Paul, is a senior at Friends. "We're all in this together. It starts with the parents, but we need help with this issue."

Jackson, of the Park School in Brooklandville, says parents don't know what their children are doing. "That's why we need more parents to be pro-active. The status quo is not OK. If we are serious about the values we teach, then we can't ignore what they are doing outside of school."

Still, some students wonder how effective the new policies will be.

Kate Koppelman, 18, a senior at Friends, said partying and drinking have become a part of school culture, bolstered by young students who want to be like the "cool" older students. She said, though, that students are not criticized if they choose not to drink.

Paul Greenfield, 17, isn't sure that the letter will change a culture where fun is equated with drinking.

Koppelman and Greenfield say students drink out of boredom because there's nothing to do on weekends. Or they are stressed from school and want to party on the weekends.

McDonogh School Headmaster W. Boulton Dixon didn't sign the letter but said he supports the message.

"My reasoning was that it was a redundancy of my own letters to McDonogh parents," he said. "I've been on the same theme for several years. I'm concerned because I haven't seen any program work. But I'm not giving up."

Rubenstein said her son was able to fool teachers, administrators and his family. "I don't blame the school, either. None of us saw it."

She said her son lives in another city and works in a delicatessen after spending months in a drug treatment program. She said he plans to go to college soon. "I'm not ashamed, and I don't blame him," she said.

Rubenstein said the problem is bigger than people have acknowledged. It's a pattern of social behavior - getting drunk and stoned because the students are depressed or stressed.

"I want to help families get help for their children earlier and destigmatize substance abuse," Rubenstein said. "It's a health problem, an illness."

Rubenstein enlisted the help of Thomas E. Wilcox, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Community Foundation, and Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Office of Substance Abuse Education at Sheppard Pratt Health System.

Gimbel said the goal is to come up with a model program of drug education, faculty training and parent involvement.

"The No. 1 issue is drinking, with marijuana not too far behind," Gimbel said. "These are the two gateway drugs at private schools."

"We want to change the culture of their social life," said Eisenberg of St. Paul's in Brooklandville. "But it's a long process."

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