Education Opinion

Prom Poppa

By Edgar Allen Beem — October 01, 1999 3 min read

I pulled an all-nighter at the post-prom party last spring. Even though I am 50 years old and a member of the Yarmouth, Maine, school committee, I camped out on a cold, hard driveway while high school students reveled nearby.

Prohibition didn’t work with adults. Why do we think it will work for teenagers?

I wasn’t there as a school leader or even as a has-been harking back to my teen age glory days. I was there as a parent trying to prevent drunk driving. Unfortunately, my protective parenting and the school district’s “zero tolerance” for underage drinking collided that night.

As the father of three daughters-two of them teenagers-I worry a lot, but I also try to be realistic. As the prom neared, I asked my daughters about their plans for after the dance, knowing there would be a big party somewhere. They mentioned a field on the edge of town. There would be a bonfire and tents, they said. The owners of the field were going to be out of town.

Armed with this knowledge, I could have made a big stink about the party and spoiled it. But I knew that the kids would only move the celebration elsewhere-somewhere I wouldn’t know about. Instead, I enlisted the help of another father, a lawyer who co-chaired the chemical- free graduation night festivities. We decided to station ourselves at the end of the road into the field. No one who was drunk would leave the party behind the wheel of a car, if we could help it.

Kids started arriving after midnight. By 2, there were 90 cars parked in the field and close to 250 teenagers (about half the student body of Yarmouth High) gathered around a bonfire, listening to music and drinking beer. As teen parties go, it was an orderly affair, with no violence, vandalism, or accidents. Someone complained about the noise to the police, but when officers paid a visit, things quieted down. Most of the kids stayed all night, sleeping in tents. Of those who left, none of the drivers was intoxicated. My friend and I stopped each car to talk to the driver- our version of an alcohol test. By noon the next day, the kids had cleaned up after themselves. Tire tracks leading into the field were the only sign there had even been a party.

Afterward, many parents called to thank us for watching over their children. Nevertheless, two weeks later, a local minister got wind of the party and called the newspaper. “School Board Member Oversees Beer Party” was front-page news. All four local television networks sent crews to my home. Radio talk shows called. The Boston Globe picked up the story, Good Morning, America mentioned it, and 20/20 came to town. People were wringing their hands about the “mixed message” I was sending teenagers. The school superintendent was forced to say-over and over again-that I had acted as a parent, not as a school committee member.

I know, of course, that I crossed an ethical line by attending a party where teenagers were drinking. As a member of the school committee, I am supposed to support Yarmouth’s “zero tolerance” of teenage alcohol and drug use. And I do. But my district’s policy suggests that the let’s-get-tough rhetoric too easily becomes hypocritical tripe. Just the week before the prom party hit the front page, a group of seniors camped out on the school grounds. There was a lot of drinking. The police came several times and confiscated any alcohol in sight, but they did not break up the gathering. In the morning, school administrators ordered the seniors to dispose of the empty bottles before school opened, but no disciplinary action was taken. With examples like this, kids quickly learn that zero tolerance is the policy, not the practice. Whatever “mixed message” I may have sent them, the kids at the prom party knew one thing for sure: that someone cared enough about them to stick his neck out to protect them.

In some ways, a zero tolerance policy is an excuse to do nothing. On prom night, you can go to sleep in a warm bed, secure in the knowledge that you are not tolerating underage drinking. But spend the night actually trying to protect kids, and you get lambasted for abetting alcohol abuse. Go figure.

Schools have 12 years to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Any “teachable moment” has passed by the time prom rolls around. I would be happier, as would most people, if teenagers didn’t drink. But Prohibition didn’t work with adults. Why do we think it will work for teenagers? When a law is so widely broken, it may be time to re-think the law.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Prom Poppa