[Sidebar] November 18 - 25, 1999


School daze

The Amy Leasca case shows how a crazy quilt of high school drinking policies produce young adults who don't know how to drink responsibly

by Justin Wolff

[] Joslin Leasca is furious. She has been devastated by recent events in the life of Amy, her 17-year-old daughter. On the last Tuesday in September, South Kingstown High School held its first dance of the year. Amy -- who school officials say has an "exemplary record of school citizenship" and who is a leading scorer on her field hockey team -- attended the dance with a group of friends. She spent most of her time there talking with chaperones, none of whom have testified to her behaving or smelling drunk. When Amy went to the aid of a friend who was obviously drunk, school officials detained and interrogated both of them in a room guarded by an armed police officer. Amy described how she had gone to a friend's house before the dance to change. On her way out the door, she admitted, she spotted a cup and drank from it. When she tasted alcohol, she put the cup down and left the house. When all was said and done, Amy confessed to educators that she had taken an inadvertent sip of rum and Coke at a party before the dance.

The South Kingstown School Committee, suspecting that Amy and her friend were conspirators in an adolescent Bacchanal, hit the girls with a five-day suspension, banned them from the sports field, and placed them on a social probation that excludes them from all after-school activities for at least six months. Incensed by the severity of Amy's punishment, Joslin Leasca appealed the ruling to the Rhode Island Department of Education. "A child taking communion would be guilty of the same crime," Joslin Leasca reasons. "The policy is not fair. It's as simple as that."

The school's lawyer argued at the appeal hearing that the case was in the jurisdiction of the local school committee and none of the state's business. For the most part, state officials agreed: they lifted the sports ban but referred the social probation back to the school committee, which now refuses to reconsider the matter. Moreover, the school committee has appealed the state ruling on the sports ban to the state Board of Regents, effectively killing the spirit of mediation in the case.

"What I most regret," Joslin explains, "is that Jack Harrington and the school committee have taken away my power to be a parent. I have been so busy with this case that I haven't even had time to discipline Amy."

Even though South Kingstown Representatives Eugene F. Garvey and Leona A. Kelley have written letters to the school committee expressing concern about the severity of the punishment, Jack Harrington, the school superintendent in South Kingstown, barely recognizes the line in the sand. "The social probation has been affirmed," he boasts. "The school committee sets policy and it must be upheld. We don't actually use the expression `zero tolerance,' but our policies do set very high standards -- very high. Alcohol consumption is illegal for minors, and extremely dangerous."

South Kingstown High School

Amy's case is symptomatic of a national anxiety about teen drinking. The Core Institute, a number-crunching research center at Southern Illinois University, publishes statistics on underage drinking that it distributes to college administrators. The numbers, no doubt, are sobering: most students drink some alcohol; a majority have had hangovers; about half have gotten ill from booze; and a little less than half binge drink, which the Core Institute defines as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting. Most disturbing are the ways in which drunkenness influence the statistics on rape and violence: alcohol, for instance, plays a role in almost all cases of unwanted sexual intercourse among students.

Local incidents have contributed to the national trend. In September 1997, a MIT freshman named Scott Krueger slipped into a three-day coma and then died after binging at a frat party. During the early `90s, incidents of alcohol poisoning, date rape, and vandalism plagued the University of Rhode Island, which the Princeton Review college guide listed as the nation's top party school for three years in a row. Brown, Providence College, and Johnson & Wales have also struggled to immunize their students against foolish drinking habits.

The numbers don't even reflect a more general malaise among underage drinkers in this country. Not only are students poorly educated about the effects of alcohol, but they're not schooled in the stylistics of drinking -- panache comes from leaning back in a chair, not breaking one. The level of teen consumption today is reminiscent of that by adults during Prohibition, but in place of dimly-lit speakeasies and swizzle-sticked highballs, we find vomit-filled frat basements and makeshift beer funnels.

It's easy to blame underage drinking on shameless advertisers, Hollywood glorifications, asinine fraternity rituals, and peer pressure. It's equally facile to attribute teen drinking to changes in family structure -- working moms, for example, and kids spending more and more time away from home. One reason for the trend may not be so complicated. The Core Institute's survey spells it out: almost 70 percent of the respondents said that they drink because it breaks the ice and enhances social activity. Over half said that drinking gives people something to talk about or facilitates bonding. In other words, those teens who don't drink because of an underlying psychological problem drink for the same reasons that adults do -- because it's fun. The less innovative high school education programs ignore this fact and assume instead that most students are alcohol abusers. These programs, experts agree, fail.

Bob Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich drug program and a counselor at East Greenwich High School, maintains that programs need to be age-appropriate and consistent. Beyond that, he says, "Our programs must focus on education, on behavioral modification, and more than anything, they must remain current and keep up with the kids. Teens demand and deserve relevance."

But colleges and universities, not high schools, are responding to the epidemic of teen alcohol abuse with new strategies. And the policies they are fashioning are stringent and controversial. Parental notification, for example, has emerged as the most potent weapon against campus drinking. A recent revision to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act makes it legal for colleges to notify parents when their underage child is busted with as little as a can of beer. "By the end of next year," Joel Epstein, the associate director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, in Newton, Massachusetts, predicts, "three out of four colleges will have parental notification."

In addition to a capricious "proximity" rule that makes it possible to reprimand students for standing in a room where alcohol is present, the University of Rhode Island has adopted a parental notification rule. Besides interfering with the fragile trust that parents and their children do manage to construct, the policy has certain civil liberty implications as well. The parents of an 18-year-old who is not enrolled in college, for example, would not be notified if he or she committed a crime. According to Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), college administrators should not be in the business of law enforcement. "Colleges should help young adults become mature adults," Brown says. "They should not mediate between a parent and their child."

But university officials are tired of puke-spotted greens and wrongful-death lawsuits. Dan Reilly, the assistant dean of student life and the director of substance abuse prevention services at URI, stresses that parental notification is "a decent way of addressing alcohol abuse. We expect to make our first calls next month." But URI also implemented a more student-friendly program this year. In September, the university received federal aid in its war against alcohol abuse in the form of a $1.4 million grant to battle binging among its students. The grant, awarded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, will fund one of the largest and most innovative collegiate drinking studies in the nation.

The project will rely on a theory of behavioral change pioneered by URI psychology professor James O. Prochaska. Calls for behavioral change fail, Prochaska determined, when they are formulated as demands. People change their behavior, he says, by progressing slowly through stages of self-awareness. Keeping this in mind, the project's leader, Robert G. Laforge, another URI psychology professor, hopes to nudge students away from excessive drinking using a one-on-one intervention program administered through personal interviews and e-mail reminders to drink responsibly. According to URI President Robert L. Carothers, the grant is necessitated by the fact that 37 percent of incoming freshmen arrive with a propensity for alcohol abuse.

Students at URI feel that the university's efforts are getting mixed results. According to John, a 19-year-old freshman, "College is not what I expected. It's pretty harsh here," he says of the drinking rules. "It's not easy to drink in the dorms, and I've heard of cases of the proximity rule being used unfairly." But, John concedes, URI is no longer a party school.

Kathryn, a 20-year-old junior from Stratford, Connecticut, opposes the parental notification policy; she believes that drinking is a personal issue that colleges should leave alone. "Going to college," she argues, "is about learning to be an individual. Students go to college for an atmosphere that helps them learn outside of the classroom as well. Parental notification undermines that." Kathryn also admits, however, that URI's policies are working. "I never see people stumbling drunk around this campus."

Matt, a 19-year-old sophomore, inhabits a different URI. He's in a fraternity and drinks whenever he wants. "Sure, if you get caught, you're screwed," he says. "But it's easy to get drunk here. I brought someone to the hospital recently. To me, that's just a matter of being stupid. You have to know your limits -- that's what responsible drinking is."

The consensus among these students is that parental notification is, above all, a strange policy. According to Matt, "If URI called my parents, they wouldn't even know what to do. It would confuse them. I mean, they know I drink. As long as I drink responsibly, they don't want to hear about it." Campus alcohol policies and adult attitudes about drinking, to Matt's mind, have very little impact on whether or not he drinks.

The same is even more true, Matt says, of the alcohol education program at his high school. Matt, who went to Toll Gate High School in Warwick, says, "In health class, we learned about STDs and what can happen to you if you drink and drive. But that's as far as it went. I still drank in high school."

John, it turns out, went to South Kingstown and knows Amy Leasca and about what happened to her. "Well," he says, rolling his eyes, "I bet she had more than a sip, but I also bet she wasn't drunk. That's tough what they did to her, but, you know, they have to make an example of someone."

The troubling implication of the attitudes and policies on Rhode Island's college campuses -- and what Amy Leasca's case makes clear -- is that high schools are failing to win the trust of teens in their alcohol education programs. "We need to strive for more applicability and openness in our programs," Houghtaling admits. Making examples of students is not something Houghtaling condones.

American society, it seems, would be better served by more flexible policies and attitudes regarding high school drinking. Perhaps grants like the one received by URI should be awarded to high schools. Or, perhaps an intrepid course should be required for high school seniors, something that goes beyond the rote health curriculum and the sermonizing skits performed by mime troupes at school assemblies. A good-willed class that analyzes the culture of alcohol and alcoholism from a creative social perspective might make students more thoughtful about their drinking habits. Reading John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra or Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes will curb anyone's sallies to the well. A 17-year-old might see Barfly as worshipful of drunkenness; it seems better to engage the movie's mechanisms with a class of teenagers than to hope they get it on their own.

"Part of the problem," Reilly says, "is that high school administrators cannot get innovative programs past their PTAs. Parents and school committees refuse even to consider teaching their kids how to drink moderately, which is the emphasis of most college programs." Instead, high schools push abstinence and zero tolerance down the throats of their kids, and then release hordes of pent-up, pleasure-seeking 18-year-olds on college campuses.

Alcohol, we should admit to kids, plays a crucial role in social customs around the world. What's more, most adults enjoy drinking and many of them do so responsibly. In this country, there is no better way to breed trouble than to deny to a teenager the existence of something they can clearly see. The cynicism that so many of us feel in our late teens emerges with our discovery of hypocrisy, whether it be parental or governmental. Though our distaste for hypocrisy abates with age, we'd do well to recall its flavor now and then. At the very least, we shouldn't lock the facts of drinking in the cabinet beside the Smirnoff. In Europe, where the drinking age is between 16 and 18, and where parents drink more naturally in front of their children, kids don't have to learn to drink surreptitiously. As a result, they tend not to binge.

In America, teens drink and drive, teens drink and assault each other, teens drink and die, and they do these things in different ways than adults do. So, lawmakers tell us, we have a drinking age. Eighteen-year-olds, though, will never tire of reminding us that they can vote and go to war, but cannot drink. "I'm the father of five sons," Newport School Superintendent Rudy Borgueta says, "so the 21 issue is something I have thought about. I went to Vietnam and came back complaining that I couldn't drink. But as much as you know when you're 18, you're still in a group mentality and susceptible to peer pressure. That three years makes a big difference. By the time you're 21, you stand on your own."

Part of the reason that high schools in this country have not implemented consistent policies or education programs regarding alcohol is that our society equivocates about the meaning of a drinking age. States have dropped 18 as the drinking age because it makes it too easy for high school seniors to supply alcohol for their schoolmates, but 21 seems an arbitrary solution. Despite Borgueta's sentiment, few 21-year-olds -- few adults for that matter -- are immune to peer pressure. Making wise decisions is something we all struggle with, and within reason, to do so is not a right that we should have to earn, but one that we should be permitted to work at.

With this in mind, a drinking age of 19 seems more logical than 21. By 19, young adults have left home to enter college, the workforce, or the military and enjoy all the freedoms of older adults except the right to drink. One result of the higher drinking age has been less obedience to it. Many parents, for example, serve their teenage children responsible amounts of alcohol. Similarly, school committees and superintendents interpret the law with varying degrees of strictness. Some see underage drinking as a matter best left to the police, while others see it as a complicated issue that requires a great deal of consideration. In Rhode Island public schools, punishment and calls for abstinence remain the most common reactions to teen experiments with alcohol. Local superintendents admit, however, that they never brainstorm with each other about the means or ends of punishment. As a consequence, that state broadcasts its attitudes about student drinking on a number of frequencies. This inconsistency perplexes and angers teenagers.

In Portsmouth, it's the police, not the schools, who are on the offensive. "On any given Friday night," Police Chief Dennis C. Seale said recently, "we may have a 13- or 14-year-old kid lying in their backyard choking on their own puke." To combat these scenarios, the police have focused on closing the stores where underage buyers get their booze. They have also established a tip line that parents, neighbors, and even other students are using to rat out parties. Anonymity may make it easier to thwart potential disasters, but surely a town can come up with a more communal approach to the problem.

Nearby, in Newport, the school committee took the drastic measure this October of permitting teachers to administer Breathalyzer tests at school dances. Even more sinister, and a perfect testimony to the adversarial atmosphere in our schools, is that dance chaperones are now being trained by the Newport police in methods for identifying suspicious behavior. "We discussed indiscriminate testing, but after our lawyer looked at it, we decided only to test those we suspected," explains Borgueta. "We are trying to be leaders in our community, so we took action on a hot topic."

But in Newport, as opposed to South Kingstown, if a student is caught drunk at a dance, he or she will be sent home with a parent and then disciplined lightly at school for a first offense. The Narragansett superintendent, John Horton, says the same is true at his schools. "A first-time offense," according to Horton, "would merit counseling with the input of both a school counselor and the parents. We're very cognizant that the rules we make are for teenagers, who are complicated. Our main goal for drinking offenses is to provide opportunities for education. For that end, we use discretion."

For high schools, the degree of a punishment for underage drinking seems best left to the kind of discretion that Horton describes. The Department of Education, in its decision on Amy's Leasca's appeal, encourages discretion, saying, "We . . . never interpret school rules involving penalties as if they . . . must literally be applied in every case." The decision's author, Forrest L. Avila, even cites a United States Supreme Court ruling that preaches discretion in matters of school discipline. If school officials can remain sympathetic to the infinite number of ways that teens come to take their first drink, they should be able to implement more organic policies that work with at least a modicum of flexibility.

Such discretion is precisely what Joslin Leasca insists is missing in Amy's case. Joslin, it so happens, is a nurse practitioner who is also studying adolescent self-confidence theory at URI. This, she believes, qualifies her to deal with her child. Instead, she says, "Amy has become a weapon for a rogue school committee." The Leascas' lawyer, H. Jefferson Melish, is also angry at the South Kingstown School Committee: "Here is a young girl, who inadvertently takes a sip of alcohol, and her own school punishes her by refusing to let her participate in such activities as Amnesty International and Habitat for Humanity. This committee is irrational and anti-student."

Jack Harrington, the South Kingstown superintendent, denies that a lack of discretion hurt Amy. "We enforce our policies firmly for the safety of our children. We will not," he insists, "use discretion differently."

However, most people with an interest in this case do see a lesson in it. Brown, of the ACLU, maintains that what has happened to Amy "is an example of how silly zero tolerance policies are. High school officials need to recognize the frailty of teens and ought to punish gross offenses severely and small violations reasonably." One of the many lessons here for Rhode Island public school students, says Brown, is "if you're gonna drink, you might as well get drunk."

The South Kingstown School Committee has taught Amy Leasca a lesson, too. According to her mother, Amy recently lamented, "I wish I lied."

Justin Wolff can be reached at jwolff@phx.com.

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