School officials, police and parents know that students are drinking but juvenile arrest statistics belie that fact. In 2000, there were only 12 juvenile arrests for possession of alcohol by a minor, double the number of arrests for the same offense the year before. “We’re not saying that this is indicative of how many teenagers are using alcohol, just how many get arrested,” said Amy Bertsch, a spokesperson for the Alexandria police department.
Lawrence Jointer, director of pupil services for the Alexandria Public School system agreed. He expelled one student last year and has expelled none this year for possession of alcohol. “You have to remember,” Jointer said, “to get to my office, the student has to bring or be found with alcohol on school grounds. If a student shows signs of being intoxicated at school, the building principal deals with the matter and may send the child home but it would not rise to the level of an offense for which we would consider expulsion. That doesn’t mean that there are no kids at one of our schools on any given day who might not have alcohol – they are just smart enough not to get caught.”
With athletics at T. C. Williams, the statistics tell the same story. “We have probably disciplined two or three kids for drinking over the past year and that was the result of a large party where the police became involved,” said A. K. Johnson, the school’s athletic director. “We have a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drug use for any student who is participating in athletics. We don’t go out and look for kids who might be drinking on weekends, but if we learn about an incident, we investigate it thoroughly and take appropriate action. Unless the police are involved, however, it is very difficult to prove and can become one student’s word against another.”
THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES, when provided the anonymity of a survey, tell a very different story. The Search Institute conducted the Developmental Assets survey in December 2000. Students between sixth and twelfth grade at all of Alexandria’s public and private schools responded.
“It is against my values to drink alcohol while I am a teenager,” was one of the questions. Sixty six percent of all sixth-graders strongly agreed with this sentiment, while only 25 percent of the seniors who were surveyed strongly agreed.
“At my school, everyone knows that you’ll get in trouble for using alcohol or other drugs.” Once again, more than 60 percent of all sixth-graders strongly agreed with this sentiment, while only 46 percent of the seniors felt that they would get in trouble for using drugs or alcohol.
Students were asked how many times they had consumed alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey. Ninety two percent of the sixth graders said none; five percent said once; one percent said twice; one percent said three to five times and one percent said six to nine times. Sixty percent of the seniors said that they had consumed no alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey; 11 percent said they had consumed alcohol once; eight percent said twice; 11 percent said three to five times; five percent said six to nine times; four percent said 10 to 19 times and one percent said 40 plus times.
SOME PROFESSIONALS HAVE CONCLUDED that teen drinking is the result of parental tolerance. Survey results seem to indicate that this theory is accurate. “If you came home from a party and your parents found out that you had been drinking, how upset do you think they would be?”
Three percent of the sixth graders who responded to the survey felt that their parents would not be at all upset while six percent of the seniors said that their parents would not be at all upset.
“Some parents think that as long as the kids are not driving, drinking is alright,” Bertsch said. “That is not the case. Alcohol impairs judgment and can lead to any number of bad decisions that have nothing to do with driving a car. Girls, for example, are more susceptible to be sexually assaulted when they are drinking.”
And what about drinking and driving? One percent of the sixth graders who responded to the survey said that they had driven a car while under the influence of alcohol once in the 12 months prior to the survey being given while another one percent said that they had driven a car while under the influence of alcohol five or more times in the same period. Seven percent of seniors said that they had driven a car while under the influence of alcohol once in the 12 months prior to responding to the survey and six percent said they had driven five or more times while intoxicated.
Students also seemed willing to ride in a car with a driver who was intoxicated. Nine percent of the sixth graders said that they had ridden in a car with someone who was intoxicated at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey; five percent said twice; two percent said three to four times and five percent said five or more times. Twelfth graders were even more likely to make this decision. Seventeen percent said they had ridden in a car with an intoxicated driver at least once; seven percent said twice; eight percent said three to four times and 11 percent said five or more times.
“We talk to the kids and we punish them if we catch them bringing alcohol or drugs onto school property,” said John Porter, the principal at T. C. Williams. “Most of them are too smart to do that, though. They are more likely to skip school and go to someone’s house and drink or wait until parents are out of town for a weekend and have a party. Sometimes they don’t even intend to have a large party. Sometimes the word just gets around that Susie’s parents are out of town and kids start showing up.”
THERE ARE, OF COURSE, THE PARTIES that are sponsored by parents. “We have certainly seen examples of parents getting hotel rooms for kids after prom and after graduation,” Porter said. “The message we want to get out is don’t do it. That is just asking for trouble.”
Alexandria police and school administrators have worked closely with local hotels to discourage this from happening. “Our local hotels are very cooperative and simply don’t rent to groups of kids,” Porter said.
A group of sophomores at T. C. say that school administrators need to find a new way of getting their message across. “Every year they say the same thing,” said one 15-year-old. “By the time you get to T. C., it just sounds mechanical and no one pays any attention.”
The one thing that does seem to have an impact is the driver’s education videos. “They don’t discourage you from drinking, but they sure discourage you from drinking and driving or getting into a car with someone who has been drinking,” said another 15-year-old.
As for hotel parties, “Lots of parents get hotel rooms for kids,” said a junior. “And if your parents won’t get the room, you can always find a friend who is over 21. Not in Alexandria, but in Crystal City or down Rt. 1 in Fairfax County.”
Porter said that teen drinking hasn’t really gotten any worse. “Kids were drinking when I was in school and they are drinking now,” he said. “The only thing that has changed a bit is that the kids seem to be drinking at an earlier age today than they did in the past. Parents just need to be aware of what is going on with their kids; chaperone parties or make sure that they are being chaperoned and communicate. Nothing is better than talking to your kids.”