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Maybe we should be looking more carefully at how parents and media treat underage drinking.

The whole issue of excessive drinking on college campuses has been on my mind a lot lately, partly due to my experiences as a college guidance counselor, but also because I have a son who has just entered high school and will be facing this rite of passage all too soon. As a college counselor in a private boarding school, I am responsible for preparing and guiding our students in the college- application process, but as is typical of boarding schools, I also take a great interest in how our students fare once they are enrolled in the colleges of their choice.

In recent years, I have found a small but vocal group of graduates who complain that the social scene on their respective campuses provides little that is not alcohol-related. They encounter students who have discovered their first taste of freedom, often translated into setting up extensive bars in their rooms, or demonstrated through spending the majority of their time seeking social situations that revolve around alcohol use. In each case, I ask what entertainment the college is providing for those who choose to abstain, and the answer, more often than not, is that "there are great programs with magicians, hypnotists, and comedians, even coffeehouses, but they all wind down around 10:00 p.m., and then what is there to do?"

Even those students who happily join in with the drinking gang often discover after one semester that this behavior has directly affected their academic performance, and when they choose to limit their involvement, they find they are socially bored. As a result, I see a growing trend of students who want to live off campus in their own apartments, where they can create a more adult lifestyle and avoid the immature behavior they perceive to be rampant in college dormitories.

This past fall, I came to realize that one small, liberal arts college in particular had a high rate of transfer among our graduates. When I have questioned these former students about their dissatisfactions with the college, it always came back to the same problem: social alcohol use, or should I say, abuse, among their classmates. When speaking with my colleagues in our local private schools, I found they had uncovered a similar dissatisfaction among their graduates with this college. What I found most striking, however, is that this college had instituted a very strict policy on alcohol use two years ago, and as far as I was able to ascertain, was following through on its stated guidelines with tenacious consistency. So, why did students still want to transfer to extricate themselves from the social alcohol scene?

Students often arrive at college with an unhealthy attitude toward drinking.

I decided the best way to research this issue was to ask the college's representative about it when she visited my school last fall. I have never been shy about trying to get an answer to a question I pose, so I jumped right in and grilled this young, perky representative, who I suspected was not used to a seasoned counselor putting her in the witness chair for cross-examination. What I anticipated was a vague answer that would include the usual "we have magicians, hypnotists, comedians, and even a coffeehouse" response, but was completely surprised, and frankly impressed, to receive a thoughtful, yet alarming, response. She told me that she felt the college was actually inheriting a problem when the students enrolled. Her observation was that students arrived at her college with an unhealthy attitude about drinking, well- established during their high school years, and as a result, the college was put in the position of having to combat a pre-existing problem. What an interesting perspective. Because she was a young representative who had recently graduated herself, I felt this perspective was well worth my consideration, and thus, the advent of my rumination on this topic.

Over the past few years, several alcohol-related events have caught my eye:

  • A senior throws a party for his friends. The parents allow alcohol to be served with the understanding that all drivers must turn in their car keys and spend the night. Later that night, their own son and a companion take the keys to the family car with the intention of picking up some girls. The son, trying to negotiate a turn, hits a utility pole and is instantly killed, while his companion is thrown from the car and sustains permanent injury. The parents of the deceased place a memorial plaque in the student's school that includes a photo of the son with a beer in his hand.

Merely two weeks later, parents from the same school host another alcohol-related event at their home, shuttling the kids out to their house from a common parking spot.

  • A middle schooler throws a party for his friends. The parents are home and are monitoring the party from the second floor of the house. A 12-year-old drinks an excessive number of shots of hard liquor, and when the others cannot awaken him, they alert the parents. The child spends two days in the hospital recovering from severe alcohol poisoning.

Examples of ineffective parenting are rife.

  • The police bust up a party on the fields of a local college, only to find that a majority of the students are underage, local high school students. This, it seems, had been a favored Friday-night party spot for some time. When a local school discovers that a number of its students have been involved and addresses the parents with concern, phone calls flood in from parents angry at the school's response. It becomes evident that parents had actually helped provide alcohol and knowingly dropped their children off at the field for the evening.
  • A neighbor hires a housesitter for her 14-year-old son for a Saturday night. She allows the son to invite a friend to spend the night. The friend is driven to the house by a parent. He arrives already under the influence of alcohol, and somehow, after the parent leaves, there is also a box with two cases of beer in the drive. Other friends arrive, and the housesitter becomes alarmed. The friends are sent home, and when the neighbor calls the parents the following morning, she gets little cooperation in determining how to address the issue of underage drinking among these boys. The parents do not want to discuss it and openly admit that they have not only failed to discuss the incident with their sons, but have not punished them.
  • In order to sneak alcohol into a 7th grade dance, boys melt the bottoms of plastic straws and fill them with hard alcohol, carrying as many as 20 straws in their pockets.
  • At a middle school's parent-student alcohol- and drug-discussion night, two parents argue about the correct way to handle the knowledge of one of their son's potential substance abuse. One parent says he would want to have the other parent notify him if that parent observed or had knowledge of a problem with his son. The other parent responds by saying he would never want to be notified, that it was his business what his son did and no one else's. The two men have known each other since childhood and are business colleagues.

I could cite examples such as these unendingly, as could most high school counselors and teachers. But is it just ineffective parenting that is to blame? I think not.

In the past year and a half, I have had a group of students come to my home every Wednesday night to watch the popular television program "Dawson's Creek." Though I am well beyond the age of enjoying a teenage soap opera, this show caught my attention with its unique format. There is a high quality of moral and ethical lessons communicated on a regular basis on this show. It presents typical teenage problems and addresses them in a thoughtful manner. I have been further impressed by the extensive vocabulary the characters use, and I appreciate the show's ability to make the vocabulary work well within the dialogue and thus to expose teenagers to new words..

Popular television shows also send the message that underage drinking is acceptable.

However, even in this show, clearly designed to be the other extreme from "Beverly Hills 90210" in its presentation of teens' lives, there are messages, both blatant and subtle, that suggest to the teenage audience that underage drinking is acceptable

Last season, the characters were seen spending an evening at a local nightclub, where they were not carded and were served mixed drinks, despite being only 15 years old. This season, the title character wallowed in his sorrows at a strip joint, where he not only was served alcohol, but also met a stripper who turned out to be 16 years old. When the characters are seen drinking sodas, they are often drinking root beer in brown bottles that look suspiciously like beer bottles. What message is this sending? When a majority of the students watching this show are given the impression that it will provide them with wholesome role models, why would they not assume that this attitude toward underage drinking is acceptable, indeed encouraged?.

Let's start seriously addressing the alcohol problem in the teenage years.

All of this brings me to only one conclusion. In the recent atmosphere of blame leveled at colleges for not controlling abusive drinking habits, maybe we are focusing our concern and angst toward the wrong constituency. Maybe we should be looking more carefully at the attitudes of parents and the media when guiding and nurturing our children in their formative years. Maybe we should face the fact that colleges cannot effectively be in loco parentis and should not be expected to be

Let us start seriously addressing the alcohol problem in the teenage years and discover how we can effectively, as parents and educators, raise responsible children with responsible attitudes. Let us stop giving credence to peer pressure and face the fact that we, as adults, are not successfully creating an environment that frowns upon the abuse of alcohol.

Anne M. Weeks, an Advanced Placement English teacher, is the director of college guidance at the Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md., and a reading consultant for the College Board.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 47, 49

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Who's Serving?
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