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High School Daze

Parents ask the School Board to institute mandatory substance-abuse education at T.C. Williams.

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Does Alexandria look the other way as teenagers consume alcohol and drugs? Consider the statistics: According to a recent survey of Alexandria schoolchildren, 61 percent of 12th grade students at T.C. Williams High School admitted that they drank alcohol one or more times in the last year — with 25 percent of respondents acknowledging that they drank five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks — and 37 percent of Alexandria high-school seniors said they have used marijuana in the last 12 months.

These statistics, compiled last summer by the school system’s Department of Monitoring and Evaluation, have prompted widespread alarm among some parents who say that the city takes a permissive attitude toward teenage drinking and drug use. Since the release of the report earlier this year, a quiet movement has taken place behind the scenes to work toward reform measures in the school system. Led by a group of concerned parents who are part of an influential advisory committee, the movement has coalesced around a series of recommendations, including one that all T.C. Williams students receive mandatory substance-abuse prevention education programs. During last week’s School Board meeting, Cate Alexander Brennan told board members that they should take action soon to prevent the winter holiday season and the summertime Beach Week from becoming venues for teenage consumption of alcohol and drugs.

"I urge the School Board to ask the superintendent to get her administration to act on the request of our community leaders — and to do so soon, before the holidays, when much drinking takes place," said Brennan, who is the parent of a T.C. Williams senior. "The houses for beach week have been rented, the planned provision of beer and wine has been affirmed, and deposits for seniors are being taken."

BRENNAN IS A MEMBER of the Substance Abuse Education and Violence Prevention Advisory Committee, whose annual report formalized several recommendations to the School Board earlier this year. Aside from recommending mandatory substance-abuse education for all high-school students, the committee also suggested that school staff members receive training sessions on violence prevention, mental-health education and ethnicity education. The report also identified policy revisions for the School Board, such as bringing an equanimity between sports groups and student clubs.

Board members are scheduled to consider the recommendations at their Dec. 20 meeting.

"There is a concern that athletes and student club members who are guilty of the same infraction are being given different disciplinary actions," the committee’s annual report concluded. "For example, crew athletes were suspended for the season for being at a party where alcohol was served. Students who were part of school-sanctioned clubs, including officers, were not denied access to participate in clubs or punished in any other way."

THE SURVEY OF students conducted earlier this year included more than 3,000 respondents who answered questions on a wide array of subjects — everything from drinking alcohol to sexual activity and violence. As students moved toward graduation, the survey showed, they became less likely to be dissuaded from drinking alcohol as a result of ethical standards. While 74 percent of seventh-graders said it would be "against my values to drink alcohol as a teenager," only 37 percent of high-school seniors said their values would prevent them from drinking.

The racial breakdown between those who responded to the values question was also striking. While 68 percent of Asian students represented the highest percentage of the population that said it would be against their values to drink alcohol as a teenager, 62 percent of black students said their values would discourage them from drinking and 48 percent of Hispanic students responded affirmatively. Only 41 percent of white students said that their values would deter them from consuming alcohol. While 73 percent of black students said "everyone knows that you’ll get in trouble for using alcohol or other drugs," only 55 percent of white students responded positively to that assertion.

"A lot of the students don’t feel that they are likely to be caught — and that, when they do get caught, there’s going to be any penalty," said School Board member Scott Newsham, who wrote a Nov. 28 memorandum to his fellow board members requesting that the board take action on the committee’s recommendations. "I think we need to send a clear signal that that’s not acceptable, and that there will be penalties."

MEMBERS OF THE Substance Abuse Education and Violence Prevention Advisory Committee — known by the acronym SAEVPAC — accused the school system of lacking "a unified response to alcohol or other drug infractions." The annual report documented instances in which administrators make arbitrary decisions regarding where to refer students for evaluation and interventions. While some were handled within the school system, others were referred to city agencies or private treatment providers. The report suggested the Alexandria school system institute a model similar to one in Fairfax County, in which students who have violated alcohol or other drug-related regulations can attend a three-day seminar held by a the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board that includes mandatory parental participation.

"The issue here is the health of our teens," Brennan told School Board members last week. "There is no evidence in this country or abroad that early drinking and the introduction of alcohol by parents results in responsible drinking either in the teen years or beyond. The evidence is to the contrary. High-school drinkers are more likely to drink and drink more than non-drinkers in college."