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Tough Talk on Teen Drinking

Local leaders offer sobering facts on teen-age drinking.

Years ago, when Capt. Bill Gulsby, commander of the Sully District Police Station, was a patrol officer, he thought about drunk driving in terms of how many arrests he could make. But over time, he changed.

"I started flying out to accident scenes in police helicopters and saw the carnage," he said. "[The victims] became people and faces, not just numbers."

Gulsby was speaking, Monday night, to nearly 90 parents and students gathered at the Sully District Governmental Center for a teen-age drinking forum sponsored by the Westfield Community Coalition.

Besides him, panelists included Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Gayl Carr, Westfield High Principal Dale Rumberger and Det. Elizabeth Dohm and Master Police Officer Bob Barton, both with the county police department's traffic division.

Dohm told how she goes to accident scenes to try to piece together what happened. "I'm one of five investigators in Fairfax County investigating major and fatal crashes," she said. "So far this year, two people under age 18 have died. Last year, 13 got killed."

SHE THEN RECALLED a double fatality she worked in May 2001. Two boys, 18 and 19 — Centreville and Chantilly High grads with fake IDs — were coming home from a night of drinking and partying, when the 18-year-old driver lost control of his brand-new, 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse on Sequoia Farms Drive. The car jumped the curb, struck an electrical box and slammed head-on into a chimney on the side of a house.

"I estimated their speed at, at least, 80 mph when they hit the house," said Dohm. "They were traveling 120 feet per second, but your reaction time is so dulled by alcohol. The road curved — they didn't. They weren't wearing seatbelts but, at 80 mph, it's simply not survivable. Both of their necks were broken, and the medical examiner said the driver's heart exploded." Dohm then had the terrible task of notifying their parents.

Barton attended high school in Vienna, and drunk driving touched his life, too. "In 1973, I lost four students out of my senior class due to liquor," he said.

Now he oversees alcohol stings for the police department. Under-age police cadets try to purchase liquor at various places and, when they're successful, the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) cites the business that sold it to them. Said Barton: "We want to make sure businesses do card people."

JUDGE CARR, who's also a parent of a daughter, 15, and son, 8, told parents to check their children's IDs periodically because "they're getting false IDs." She also warned them how teen parties without parents can quickly get out of hand. Then police are notified and arrests are made.

"We called a boy's father in New York at 3 in the morning and told him his son was arrested and his home was trashed," she said. "The boy cried in my courtroom, and I asked him, 'What did you learn from this?'" Carr said teen-age girls are now drinking as much as boys, and she warned parents that under-age possession of alcohol is a "jailable offense" that also involves mandatory loss of a driver's license for six months.

"Driving is a privilege, and with it comes responsibility," she said. "If you can't live up to the responsibility, you lose the privilege." She also presented several facts about alcohol, informing parents that it's the leading factor in the three main causes of teen deaths — accidents, homicides and suicides.

Carr said individuals who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent than those who start drinking at age 21. "This is a scary and sobering statistic," she said. "That's why we have zero-tolerance laws. The average age for marijuana use is 13.5 years old — middle school."

She noted that charges of under-age possession of drugs or alcohol follow people later applying for jobs, college, the armed forces or financial aid, grants and scholarships. She said a person's opportunities for success can be blown in an instant with one, bad decision.

ADDED GULSBY: "I always tell my son, 'If you hang around with bad people, bad things will happen. If you put yourself in that environment, it'll come around to bite you.'"

Carr told students they risk being arrested if they stay in a car or at a party where alcohol or drugs are present because — even if they don't partake of it, themselves — they can be arrested along with those who did.

She also said that, often, the designated driver doesn't avoid drinking — he just drinks less. But it doesn't make him any less dangerous behind the wheel. Said Carr: "Kids think they're invincible — the crash into the house won't happen to them."

She warned girls to never put down their drink at a party, pick it up and drink it again because "someone can put a date-rape drug in it and rape you."

Likewise, said Carr, "Don't hold anything for anyone," because police will arrest those in possession of illegal drugs — even if they were just holding them for someone else and had no intention of using them. She then advised parents to set good examples for their children: "Kids model your behavior. We are the biggest influence on [them]."

She said parents should establish firm rules and enforce them, talk with teens about choices and consequences, keep the lines of communication open, discuss peer pressure, monitor their activities and know their friends and their parents. Parents should make sure there's proper adult supervision, and they should listen to their children so they'll share things and tell them what's happening with them.

WESTFIELD PRINCIPAL Dale Rumberger related 2002 Virginia crash statistics:

* 45 teens, 15-19, were killed in alcohol-related crashes;

* 1,095 teens, 15-19, were injured in such crashes;

* 50 teens, 16-17, died on Virginia's roads, down 2 percent from 2001;

* 115 people, 18-20, died on Virginia's roads, up 28 percent from 2001

* 43 percent of the 115 teen fatalities were alcohol-related, and 58 percent of the victims weren't wearing seatbelts.

Rumberger said alcohol is a problem in schools — his included — and noted that all five schools he's worked in, the past 28 years, have had "a tragic alcohol issue — including the collateral damages of kids going home to alcoholic parents or using alcohol to help them cope."

He said parties are going on, every day of the week, for adults as well as teens. "When I call parents to say, 'Your child is at a school event and is loaded,' [sometimes they reply], 'Is it only alcohol? Thank God — I thought it was something more serious than that,'" said Rumberger. "As if a 16-year-old loaded at 6:30 p.m. isn't serious."

He said 80 percent of the busts at Westfield are because students tell administrators. "They don't want it at their school," he said. 'It tells us something is going right with them." Indeed, he added, "Our PTA has as one of its mottoes, 'Trust, but verify.'"

Rumberger said it's better if parents admit their children did wrong and make them take the consequences, than help them get out of trouble — otherwise, they'll never learn. Instead, he said, parents should help children see "the ramifications of their decisions — that's when they'll change."