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Discussing ‘Saturday Night in the Suburbs’

Lake Braddock seniors discuss sex, drugs and social media.

Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County Executive Director Diane Eckert moderated an open forum discussion of high school transgressive social culture at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County Executive Director Diane Eckert moderated an open forum discussion of high school transgressive social culture at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Photo by Tim Peterson/The Connection

What really happens in the suburbs on Saturday nights? At an open forum at Lake Braddock Secondary School on Wednesday, May 1, community parents had the opportunity to have their fears and concerns over this question confirmed, assuaged, and in some cases, postponed.

“One thing that hits back is the composition of the panel. There weren’t troublemakers, but what kids want to volunteer? You can try to get them, but it’s the ones who didn’t show up, their parents, that you have to get the word out to.”

—George Becerra (preferred to not be photographed), father and Burke resident

Special guests for the night were five high school seniors who had volunteered to discuss a range of topics—including illegal alcohol and marijuana use, depression and social media use—and field cross-examination from concerned parents.

The event followed another of its kind that took place at West Springfield High School on April 24. Titled “Saturday Night in the Suburbs,” the concept was developed by the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County (unifiedpreventioncoalition.org) and sponsored by the respective PTSAs.

THOUGH THE ETHNICALLY DIVERSE five-member panel comprised all seniors (three female, two male), the vast majority of the 70-odd parent audience admitted to having one or more middle school students at home. Grade representation quickly dropped as the level of attendees increased; only one or two parents of high school seniors were present. Their peers, apparently, have all been there, done that.

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Diane Eckert, executive director of UPC of Fairfax County and Vienna resident “The large number of middle school parents who are here tonight. It’s wonderful. And we have to pat ourselves on the back: while 36 percent of seniors surveyed are drinking regularly, 10 years ago it was up in 50 percent for 12th graders. As parents, these are things your school, your resources here, are readily available to help you with. You have really good people.”

At first, it would appear those with seventh and eighth-graders were acting prematurely. What could they gain from attending a question-and-answer-style event focused on teasing out the present-day high school culture of sex, drug use and electronic social interaction?

According to the results of the most recent Fairfax County Youth Survey, their fact- and truth-seeking involvement was right on time.

During her introduction, Executive Director of the Fairfax County Unified Prevention Coalition Diane Eckert shared that from 45,000 eighth, 10th and 12th grade students surveyed, 6.6 percent of eighth graders responded that they regularly drink alcohol and had done so within the last 30 days. And 2 percent of that group admitted to binge drinking (for males, having 5 or more drinks in a two-hour period, 4 or more for females).

“You should be here,” Eckert addressed the audience. “Now is the time to hear from these young people and think about how you want to handle these issues with your young people.”

The forum’s timing was appropriate for several reasons. In addition to being the onset of prom and graduation season, May has also been dubbed “Parents Who Host Lose The Most” in Fairfax County.

PARENTS PROVIDING ALCOHOL TO MINORS fell under the category of “access.” According to the survey, 16 percent of 10th graders and 36.5 percent of seniors reported they had had a drink in the last month and were drinking regularly. The panel confirmed the understanding that parents’ liquor cabinets (both allowed and stolen) and older siblings or friends are the primary access points.

However, the five seniors also provided commentary that was unexpectedly tame. When questioned about peer pressure to drink to fit in, binge drinking, driving drunk and the use of marijuana and other drugs at high school parties, most of the panel members genuinely downplayed their prevalence.

“We’re seeing the youth are being really influenced by how ambivalent the whole country is about the legalization of marijuana,” said Eckert.

In some cases, students’ responses were so positive and reassuring that the audience questioned their authenticity as a cross-section of the student body. “We need some bad kids on the panel,” one parent commented during the discussion.

Indeed, another two seniors were meant to be on the panel but couldn’t make it. And given the volunteer nature of their face-to-face presence at an event that was open to any adult in the community, it’s understandable not all students would desire to come forward.

THOUGH PARENTS RAPIDLY FIRED QUESTIONS about sexual abuse at parties, if it’s acceptable to call ahead to see if the party-thrower’s parents would be present, and why students would drink or smoke in general, the room grew decidedly quiet when Eckert raised the topic of social media.

In addition to the inherent dangers of young adults risking their own privacy and safety through online picture and profile information-sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, school and law enforcement officials have learned that social media is helping parties, particularly inter-high school, grow exponentially in size and popularity.

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Judy Dioquino, Lake Braddock PTSA president and Burke resident “I was impressed that it seemed as though [drug] use was down. In the past, parents, we’ve seen supplying them and taking the keys. It’s also tough to get seniors to talk. A lot won’t come forward. And parents don’t have a grasp that kids are aware of more parties. Now there are specifically more parties between high schools. Parents are just way behind.”

The panel confirmed this concept, citing the action jargon “Hype it or don’t hype it” that qualifies a party as one that should be spread through social networks or not. The lack of audience feedback underlined a fundamental need for parents to make greater attempts at communicating with their children, both through new media and old-fashioned face-to-face time.

As one panelist summed: “You need to find a balance with your kid. You can be friendly, but if they mess up, they know the hammer’s going to get dropped.”