County, schools aim to spread message on consequences of alcohol consumption

Putting a stop to teen drinking


The message was loud and clear to students leading up to Mount Hebron's "Beach Bash II" dance Feb. 17: Don't drink.

But by the end of the night, five students had been kicked out of the dance for alcohol consumption, and police were saying that alcohol was suspected in a single-car crash that killed one student headed to the dance and sent two others to the hospital.

The events in Ellicott City that night have focused renewed attention on underage drinking, a problem not limited to Mount Hebron or to Howard County which, like other suburban school systems, is fighting back.

Nowhere is the urgency of that message taken more seriously than at Mount Hebron, which has the highest rate of alcohol-related suspensions in the county.

The school is requiring teenage drivers to retake a mandatory safety class, which includes an alcohol-abuse segment, in order to keep their school parking permits.

Elsewhere in the county, an anti-drug and alcohol group is holding information sessions this spring for students and parents on such topics as "Sex under the Influence of Alcohol & Other Drugs" and "Staying Safe During Prom Season."

"There is a lot of concern from the parents, students, administration and the teachers," Mount Hebron PTSA President Cindy Ardinger said in the aftermath of the Feb. 17 dance. "It is not something that we will let fade away. Everybody is concerned about underage drinking."

Two weeks ago, Ardinger met with Howard County police officers, the school's principal Veronica Bohn and the system's coordinator of school security, Steve Drummond, to discuss underage drinking involving Mount Hebron students.

Ardinger said the group talked about alcohol access, the use of fake identification and some of the consequences of underage consumption.

In coming weeks, Ardinger plans to send information to parents and students about the legal consequences of underage drinking. She is also looking to work with anti-drinking groups to generate ideas and plans to hold a meeting with parents, police and the state's attorney. And she stresses that the problem is not an isolated one.

"Yes, Mount Hebron needs to address it," Ardinger said. "But it is an issue out there in general."

In the 2004 Maryland Adolescent Survey, 63 percent of state high school seniors admitted drinking alcohol in the past year compared with the national average of 70.6 percent. In Howard County, 64.9 percent of seniors said they drank within the past year.

Those younger than 21 accounted for about one in 10 of DUI arrests made in the county last year. At Mount Hebron, Feb. 17 brought the issue home again, in a particularly painful way.

Senior Theresa Rayburn, 17, crashed into trees while driving on Old Frederick Road (Route 99) a little more than a mile from the school.

Rayburn was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in critical condition and later released. Her best friend, Michele Iampieri, 18, was killed instantly.

Rayburn's boyfriend, Christopher Missett, a 16-year-old junior who was riding in the back seat, was released from the trauma center with a hairline fracture to his jaw.

Although they are awaiting the results of blood-alcohol tests, police say believe the accident was alcohol-related.

All three students had been headed to the school dance, where security that night removed five students for underage drinking. One of the five students was taken to the hospital for alcohol poisoning.

"Teens really feel they are invincible," said Laura Smit, executive director of HC DrugFree. "I think in the end I don't think anyone knows what will keep teens from drinking."

Divya Nithianandan, 17, a senior at Mount Hebron who started the anti-drinking and drug group Resist to Exist a year ago, said teens drink to rebel against their parents.

"It's so easy to fall into that trap," Nithianandan said about underage drinking. "Everyone is trying to experiment. People think it is cool to do that."

But she's cautious about singling out Mount Hebron.

"I think that every high school you go to, there will be drug and alcohol problems," said Nithianandan.

Still, the fact that Mount Hebron accounted for 18 of the system's 48 alcohol-related suspensions during the 2004-2005 school year raised some eyebrows.

"I was alarmed," Ardinger said of the statistics. "My impression is we are not different from any other school in Howard County. We are very vigilant."

Smit said the administration at Mount Hebron is the reason why so many underage drinkers are caught.

"Veronica Bohn is one of the most proactive principals in Howard County," Smit said.

Bohn agreed that vigilance played a role in the school's high numbers. The measures taken at the recent dance are a case in point.

Nithianandan described the Mount Hebron administration as highly aggressive in its tactics.

"One of our administrators chased down a student [who was drinking at the dance]," she said. "That's why our stats are higher than other schools."

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