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Parents Get a Talking-To

Oakton parents and administrators discuss students' risky behavior.

An impassioned meeting between more than a dozen school officials and well over 100 local parents, held at Oakton High School last Wednesday night, Dec. 6, had already run a half hour over its scheduled time when PTSA President Richard Willat looked at his watch and announced that the gathering would have to adjourn. Still, 30 minutes later, knots of parents lingered in worried conversation.

The subject that had stirred such interest was not a school boundary study, but teen drinking behavior. However, parents, not students, were the ones who received a lesson in personal responsibility.

The meeting, as Willat told parents at the start, was "born out of the events of Oct. 28," when two drunken Oakton students crashed into a parked car on Miller Heights Road. The passenger, 16-year-old Chris Kearns, was killed in the wreck.

"I'm not here to tell you how to raise your kids," said Oakton High School Principal John Banbury after he took the podium. However, he noted, some parents seem all too willing to pass on some of the child-rearing responsibility to school officials.

A column Banbury wrote in the PTSA newsletter shortly after the accident had drawn abundant feedback, and not all of it was positive, he said. A number of e-mails he received before and after the column's publication asked what the school intended to do about student drinking habits. "That's a good question," said Banbury.

He noted that students learn about drinking and drunk driving in health class, driver's education, biology and other classes. "As far as drinking and other drug use and driving goes, your kids understand what causes it and what the results can be," he told parents, adding that this knowledge does not always prove to be a sufficient deterrent.

"The second theme of the e-mails that inspired the column," he said, "was that we need to do better with keeping our kids from driving, and I think that's missing the boat. What we need to do better is keep our kids from drinking."

Banbury noted that school officials only have control over students for part of the day and cannot take away their keys, money or access to drugs and alcohol. The school, he said, has zero tolerance for alcohol or drug use or possession on school grounds, and when violations are discovered, "we move on it immediately." However, he noted, this is often the point when parents get involved, condemning the school's administration for punishing their children or flatly denying their children's involvement in prohibited activities.

"On our end, we know what needs to be done, but this community, as a whole, sends mixed messages as to what you want done," said Banbury. "These mixed messages, I think, are confusing to the kids."

SCHOOL BOARD member Phil Niedzielski-Eichner reiterated Banbury's call for solidarity. "We are a hard-nosed school system," he said, noting that drug and alcohol policies are strictly enforced. "We stand by those administrators when they enforce those regulations. We expect you to stand by us," he told parents. "If we aren't in this together, where are we?"

Having sat in on many disciplinary hearings, Niedzielski-Eichner said he had noticed that often, "75 percent of the problem is sitting right next to" the student, in the form of a parent. These students often have poor attendance records and long histories of trouble in school, he noted, wondering how the parents could be unaware of their children's floundering. Then, he said, more often than not, "it's a parent who's apologizing, who's questioning, 'Why are you doing this to my child?'"

Niedzielski-Eichner said he and his wife had told their own daughters, when they went out with high-school friends, "Have a good time, but when you come home, come in and kiss me goodnight, even if I'm asleep." This had allowed him a whiff of their breath. "To the extent that we have high expectations, our children will rise to the occasion," he said. "Our kids want us to say no."

"You can impress upon them and impress upon them," said Fairfax County Police Officer William Fulton, insisting that enforcement is the critical component to altering students' behavior. Parents, he said, have got to do their part. Looking around the auditorium, he noted, "Out of all the parents at this school, a lot of them didn't think it was that important to be here."

Fulton pointed out that the police run traffic checkpoints and alcohol stings. For its part, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has created rules limiting the number of passengers young drivers can carry. "If they raise the age to 18, you watch how many people go down to Richmond to protest," he said.

Phil Levine, the school's director of student activities, reminded parents of the school's policy regarding after-school activities and student drinking, drug use, and tobacco use. Participation in after-school activities, he said, is legally a privilege and not a right.

School policy is that students who participate in these activities are not to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco at any time, including non-school hours, said Levine. Those who are caught doing so will miss out on at least some of their teams' games or contests and be assigned to community service, and they could become ineligible for honors in their extracurricular activity and be sent to drug and alcohol treatment.

This policy, he said, often comes as a surprise to parents, although it is signed by all administrators, students and parents at the beginning of the season. Parents often pay little attention to the rules they are signing because they do not believe the policy will apply to their children, said Levine. "It can happen to anybody," he told parents. "Whether your kid is a straight-A student, or whether your kid gets C's and D's, it can happen to anybody."

He added that he sometimes gets calls from parents letting him know that there was a party over the weekend. "I ask, 'Did you call the police?'" The response is generally along the lines of, "Oh, no, I could never do that," he said. "You've got to give me more to work with."

REINFORCING PARENTAL accountability for student behavior was not the only purpose of the meeting, and the parents present seemed ready to accept responsibility for regulating their children's behavior, but they were not all sure how to go about it.

Fulton was asked about teen driving laws. During teens' first year with a driver's license, they may drive with only one passenger who is under 18 and is not a family member, he explained. After their first year, until they turn 18, they may have up to three friends in the car. Anyone under 18 may not drive between midnight and 4 a.m., barring an emergency. "At 12:01, the car turns into a pumpkin, folks," he said.

"There's no reason we can't, as a parent, say, 'You can only have one kid in the car.' You don't need a law," piped up audience member Janice Holmblad, prompting applause.

A few audience members asked about publishing a list of parents who had taken a "parent pledge" not to allow alcohol consumption at their house.

Assistant Principal Chip Comstock noted that such lists have not always proven effective but added, "I do think it's a message to the community that you care and that you're doing something."

Assistant Principal Pam McMillie said she remembered such a list being proposed to the Oakton PTSA a few years ago. "That was the biggest argument I ever saw at a PTSA executive meeting," she said. "People were really mad that we were even bringing it up."

Panelist Sherri Seeger, who coordinates the Oakton Community for Youth Safety, noted that Langley High School has a list of pledging parents, and said she would like to see Oakton adopt one. "It gives you a measure of connection as parents," she said.

Audience member Laurie Alderman told panelists she made a habit of asking parents whose houses her daughter visits what their rules are, just as she did when her older child was in school seven years ago. However, she said, the responses she gets from parents are quite different this time around: "Why are you interrogating me? Why are you intimidating me?" she paraphrased.

Parents have become too worried about being connected with any children's wrongdoings, Seeger responded. She said she had seen overly much concern from parents about students being caught drinking at their houses or about their own children being caught elsewhere, to the point that some parents preferred to overlook misbehavior in favor of no one getting caught. "Just having your kid in trouble, that's not scary," said Seeger. "You pick up your chin, and you sit on panels."

Fulton emphasized that parents should be more than willing to catch their own children. He offered a hypothetical dialogue between parent and child:

"I'll look in your room."

"I don't want you in my room. You're invading my privacy."

"Oh, well. It's my house. I won't upset you. I'll look while you''re gone."

"THERE IS A TON of research out there that tells us what to do about teens and driving, and, you know what? We're not doing it," said Robin Thompson from the audience, insisting that drinking was not the only problem. She lost her 16-year-old daughter in a crash on Lee Chapel Road in Springfield three years ago, she said, noting that neither speed nor alcohol had been factors.

She cited a George Mason University study, which she said had found that driver's education classes contained little to pique students' interest and that behind-the-wheel classes were insufficient. Thompson noted that Virginia once tried to raise the legal driving age by three months. "Guess who vetoed it. The fast-food industry, because they were going to lose their employees," she said.

Three students who had known Kearns said they had been trying to establish a safe-ride program since his death but were having difficulty because school officials did not feel they could condone any sort of underage drinking. Banbury encouraged the girls to keep working with the administration.

"I can tell you, at this point, that the effect of the tragedy has worn off," warned Jennifer Kudashov, who teaches Spanish at the school. "Students are back to their old behavior. People have stopped talking about it."