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Number One County Issue?

Safe Community Coalition hosts press conference during Safe Prom Week to raise awareness about underage drinking.

Those who happened to pass by the back entrance of McLean High School on June 2 could not help but stare at the giant glass trailer on display. A mangled black pickup truck rested inside, and on the bottom left corner, a laminated poster gave the grim details of what had happened to the truck's driver and passenger.

After a birthday celebration that involved several bars and heavy drinking, two 27-year-old men left the last venue — despite the fact that friends had offered to drive. The driver lost control of the vehicle, running into several uprooted shrubs, spinning the truck around and finally crashing into a tree. The passenger was pronounced dead at the scene and the driver suffered severe head injuries, loss of an eye and body trauma. He was never brought to trial for the death of his passenger because he was declared too mentally impaired.

The Virginia chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) uses the truck from this accident as an educational display. The McLean High School Safe Prom committee arranged to borrow it the day before the school's prom, hoping it would serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving. The MADD "crash car" was the last of several activities organized for Safe Prom Week at McLean High School.

"Safe Prom Week is a new thing that we started this year," said junior Catalina Moreno.

Promotional activities included an information table outside of the school's cafeteria, a beer goggle display that showed how vision is impaired by drinking, and guest speaker Chris Skinner, who is a quadriplegic as a result of a drunk driving accident.

"We also had cards written by fifth graders from Chesterbrook Elementary, asking McLean students to please not drink on prom night," said Moreno.

Students were offered the opportunity to sign a pledge promising that they would avoid alcohol on prom night. Those that signed were given pencils and snacks.

"We got a little over 100 pledges signed which was a really good outcome for one day," said Moreno.

Safe Prom t-shirts were also handed out two weeks ago.

"We gave them out to 250 kids, but a lot of them have been wearing them, so I think that shows good support," said junior Blair Saunders.

ON FRIDAY, JUNE 2, the Safe Community Coalition (SCC) hosted a press conference at the school. Representatives from the SCC, MADD Virginia and the Fairfax County Police Department participated in the event, and discussed the dangers of underage drinking.

"It is a serious problem in our community," said Jan Auerbach, President of the SCC. "Studies show that the younger a child is when they start drinking, the more likely they are to have health problems and a drinking problem later on."

One major concern is that there are a number of parents who provide their children with alcohol – many doing so because they believe it allows them to supervise while teaching their kids how to drink responsibly.

"Parents of teens need to be parents, not their friends," said Jeff Levy, Public Policy Liaison for Virginia's MADD. "There is no such thing as teens drinking responsibly or safely."

Levy became involved with MADD after his son was killed in a drunk driving accident in 1997.

"When I speak to parents I am constantly reminded that there is this feeling that as long as it's not drugs, it's not a big deal," said Levy. "Too often they turn their heads because they just don't think it's that big of a problem."

COL. DAVID ROHRER, Fairfax County Chief of Police, agrees that more parents need to realize that underage drinking is one of the biggest issues facing the Fairfax County Police Department.

"We seem to have a hard time getting this message out," said Rohrer. "The simple sad fact is that too often underage people get their alcohol from adults. It is unlawful and it is irresponsible… we as a caring community need to accept a collective responsibility… it's come to be seen by far too many as a rite of passage."

Rohrer said that he is constantly asked to talk about gangs and drugs "because those are sexy topics," but he believes that underage drinking is the "number one problem" for his police force today.

"Half of our 12th graders report using alcohol in the last 30 days," said Rohrer. "More than a quarter of seniors talk about engaging in binge drinking, and when I speak with students, they acknowledge the ready availability of alcohol… we must focus on zero tolerance of underage drinking."

David Anderson, Director for the Center for Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University (GMU), listed several frightening statistics about the negative effects that alcohol can have on the brain.

"Those who start drinking at 15 or younger are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who start drinking at 21," said Anderson. "In addition, we know that drinking during puberty may upset the hormonal balance of the body."

Anderson also noted that studies have shown that the hippocampus — the area of the brain that handles memory and learning — is much smaller in 14-21-year-olds who consume alcohol.

"So if the hippocampus is smaller, that means less memory and less learning," said Anderson.

Anderson said that since the adult brain and the adolescent brain are different, and since the brain develops up until a person is in their twenties, "the challenge is to delay the onset of [alcohol] use."