Proms, Graduations Spur Schools To Redouble Anti-Drinking Efforts
Big Spring High School's first annual anti-drinking-and-driving fair was almost over. Students had picked up brochures, watched a video about drunken-driving accidents, undergone mock sobriety tests administered by police officers, and sampled nonalcoholic mixers from a "mocktails" stand.
Then a chant erupted from the middle of the cafeteria, where more than a dozen students had formed a circle around a boy who had swiped an empty "mocktail" bottle.
"Chug! Chug! Chug!" the students shouted.
Leaning his head back with the bottle pressed to his mouth, he pretended to gulp down its contents. Then he grinned and raised the bottle in the air as his friends cheered.
This scene, played out last month in this rural Pennsylvania town 30 miles south of Harrisburg, offers a vivid example of the challenges faced by school administrators across the country this time of year.
In what has become a staple of prom and graduation season, most high schools take extra steps to warn their students about the dangers of drinking and driving. But they can't guarantee that the message is getting through.
"This is a fear that every school has," said Buck Stroh, the principal of Creede High School in Creede, Colo., where one student died and five were injured last month in a one-vehicle accident following the school's prom.
Police have not yet determined whether the driver had been drinking, but Sgt. Clayton Applegate of the Colorado state police said he "certainly" believes alcohol played a role in the accident. Alcohol was found at the scene, and blood tests showed that at least two of the six passengers had been drinking.
"We've asked ourselves over and over: Was there anything different we could have done?" Mr. Stroh said.
He has no answer to that question. Creede students had organized an alcohol-free party at the school's gymnasium after the prom; before the event, teachers had warned students not to drink and drive.
"The only thing a school can do is to try new techniques and approaches," Mr. Stroh said.
Some 2,315 people ages 15 to 20 died in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes in the United States in 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those deaths, 618 occurred in April, May, and June--the prime months for proms and graduations.
Schools are trying to reduce those figures with an array of prevention strategies, some of which probably don't make much of a difference in affecting student behavior, experts say.
"Too many of the approaches are fluff and not substance," said Bill Cullinane, the executive director of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or sadd. Formerly called Students Against Driving Drunk, the Chatham, Mass.-based group reports a membership of 25,000 students in chapters across the country.
Many of the oldest and most popular strategies are designed to raise student awareness. These include holding assemblies, handing out anti-drinking buttons or red ribbons, and encouraging students to sign a "Prom Promise" in which they pledge not to drink and drive on prom night.
Little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of such activities, but Mr. Cullinane suspects that they have little impact unless they're done in conjunction with other efforts.
"To sign a pledge means nothing," he said. "The idea is to converse about it, make it a tool for communication."
Technology has led to a relatively new kind of awareness tool--drunken-driving simulators. With the help of goggles or specially equipped cars, students can get an idea of what it would be like to drive under the influence of alcohol.
"I don't believe that other methods are getting the message out," said Dean Georgopoulos, a producer for Kosmos Innertainment Group Inc., a Portsmouth, N.H.-based company that creates simulation programs. "We give the message to [students] in their own language."
The company plans to launch a tour of high schools next spring using graphic 3-D films with such titles as "911," "Metal," and "Body Bags." The films are augmented by drunken-driving simulations.
"We're not sugarcoating anything," Mr. Georgopoulos said.
Simulators have their critics, however. Some say the high-tech tools turn drinking into a game; others say the approach is too impersonal.
"It is not quite as effective to rely on technology as it is to rely on people to sell a message or idea," argued Bruce Yates, who runs an alcohol education program for the Anchorage, Alaska, school district and co-wrote a 1991 article in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education that assessed various anti-drinking-and-driving strategies.
But some experts believe that simulations have their place in a comprehensive campaign against drinking and driving.
Ginny Shaller, the national coordinator for Turning Recreational Excitement in New Directions, or trend, a student-led St. Louis-based group that promotes alcohol-, drug-, and tobacco-free activities, said that while simulations have little long-term effect, they can be send a powerful statement if used shortly before a prom or graduation.
Other frequently used tactics include setting up a wrecked car on school grounds, sometimes accompanied by students who pretend to be injured, and holding "Grim Reaper Days," in which someone dressed as the Reaper pulls students out of class to symbolize the "victims" of fatal drunken-driving accidents. When the students return, they are dressed in black and refrain from speaking.
Don't Drink, Period
Among the most controversial approaches to preventing drunken-driving accidents are "call a ride" programs set up for teenagers who decide to drink but don't want to get behind the wheel.
Most anti-drinking activists and traffic-safety officials agree that these programs send a mixed signal to students. Schools should be telling them not to drink at all, these experts say.
"To focus on drinking and driving is a false goal," said Jim Wright, the youth-alcohol-program manager for NHTSA, the federal traffic-safety agency in Washington. "If you don't impact drinking, you will not affect driving."
But this is a sensitive issue, acknowledged Heather Rogers, a training and prevention specialist with SADD Michigan.
"The reality is that students are drinking, and some students want to push those [call-a-ride] programs," she said.
A far more popular approach is to try to ensure a safe environment for students by holding alcohol-free parties following proms and graduation ceremonies.
"This is a way to introduce students to having fun [while] sober," Ms. Shaller of TREND said.
Along with "Prom Promise," alcohol-free parties are one of the approaches recommended most favorably by the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.
"We stand behind schools who, with the help of the community, stage activities that are constructive," said Gary Marx, the organization's senior associate executive director.
The best way to keep students from drinking and driving, many experts say, is for them to see their peers behaving responsibly.
"Youngsters who model the alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle are most effective in getting other students not to drink," said Mr. Cullinane of SADD. "There is no big message. It's just the kind of action that brings change."
A 1995 study by NHTSA comparing six high schools that had active SADD programs with six that did not found that students in the former group were more likely to hold negative attitudes about drinking and driving, Mr. Wright said.
"Schools with active programs were most likely to create attitudes rejecting alcohol, and teens had more positive reasons not to use alcohol," he said.
Mr. Wright added that schools need to reinforce their anti-drinking campaigns "every month, all year long."
Mr. Cullinane agreed. "The question is, 'Did you do something continually throughout the year?'" he said. "It isn't done the day before an event or a week before--it's a whole process."
Finally, Mr. Wright said, schools need support from their communities. Parents shouldn't condone drinking, and police should enforce zero-tolerance laws, he said.
"When all elements work in sync, then you have the best chance for results," Mr. Wright said.
'Worth a Try'
Students at Big Spring High School echoed many of these conclusions at their fair here last month.
Watching their peers being led away in handcuffs as part of a simulated sobriety test or getting a taste of an alcohol-free mixer won't leave much of an impression on those who drink, some students said.
"It puts a thought in our heads for a day. There is a momentary impact to see it, but it's just that," said an 18-year-old senior who said he drinks alcohol at parties but doesn't drive afterwards.
"I'm interested, but I don't think they're taking this to heart," said another senior, age 17, who characterized her 1,000-student school as a place with a lot of drinking and drugs despite having an active SADD chapter. "This gives students something to think about, but kids will always make stupid decisions or say, 'It won't happen to me.'"
Still, she said, programs such as this are "always worth a try."
Ninth grader Danielle Piper, meanwhile, said the fair was effective.
"I think it was a creative idea," she said, clutching a drink ticket for the "mocktails" stand.
G. Ronald Wilson, the school's principal, conceded that "it's awfully hard" to get the message across to teenagers not to drink and drive.
But the fair makes a statement and teaches students to make the right decision, he added.
"If it gets the attention of one kid," he said, "it is worth doing."
Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 1, 13Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Proms, Graduations Spur Schools To Redouble Anti-Drinking Efforts