A lax and permissive attitude towards underage drinking and illegal drug use kills kids.  Sadly this terrible situation is highlighted by the yearly hedonistic celebration of excess known as the high school prom.  Teenagers are by nature prone to testing the limits of everything including safety by engaging in risky behaviour.  Normally adults, especially parents provide the structure and constraints that serve to reduce the risk and dangerous situations that teens tend towards.  That’s the deadly problem today – normal isn’t what it used to be.

Why would we expect teenagers to not drink to excess at the prom and the revelry surrounding it when everything else about the prom is excessive?  Jason Alderman of the Algoma News reports; “According to a recent nationwide survey conducted by Visa Inc., the average U.S. family with a high school student attending the prom expects to spend $978 this year. Surprisingly, that’s down 14 percent from last year’s survey average of $1,139 per family. ” Families  spend all that money for what?  Out of control partying; “Hodgins Street in Leamington is one of the most peaceful residential areas in all of Essex County. But one night last month, it was transformed into party central, with hundreds of drunk teenagers peeing in bushes, puking in flowerbeds and passing out in a lake of effluent from overflowing port-o-johns.”  (The Windsor Star)

Lloyd Mack of Kenora Ontario describes the prom dilemma clearly; “With prom night, graduation and other end-of-the-year milestones around the corner, the question remains: How do you keep young people convinced of their invincibility safe from such deadly behavior? One way — the first way — is to put an end to the after-parties for prom that are openly organized with everything from DJs to admission charges. I cringe at the thought this is the social responsibility being demonstrated by adults — instead of graduating to substance-free parties like Safe Grad totally, we turn a blind eye — or worse, condone drinking parties as an accepted coming-of-age rite of passage.  Some parents believe youth — and it shouldn’t be forgotten it is illegal for the clear majority of high school students to consume alcohol — can be kept safer by allowing them to drink in a controlled environment.”

The sad case of Christopher Skinner is a case in point; “In June 2010, on the family room floor of a buddy’s Hamilton-area home, the brilliant Grade 12 grad with three part-time jobs and an acceptance to U of T died of acute alcohol poisoning. After consuming a 26-ounce bottle of rye and several beers earlier in the night, the 17-year-old went to Kyle Baron’s house where he chugged a five-ounce glass of screech rum. When Skinner collapsed, friends laid him out on the floor and in keeping with tradition, wrote profanity on his body with markers, duct taped his legs together, and after taking photos, left him to sleep it off. But the popular, guitar-playing, physics-loving teen would never wake up.”

Michelle Mandel of the Toronto Sun asks: “Who’s to blame? His parents are now suing the homeowners, Doug and Wendy Baron, who testified at last month’s inquest that while they knew Skinner had passed out after drinking in their home — Wendy Baron had even written on the boy’s feet — they were too intoxicated themselves to check on him.  The teen was found dead the next morning from nearly five times the legal alcohol limit in his lanky body.”  Christopher Skinner was a ‘brilliant Grade 12 grad’ but not  mature enough to avoid risky ‘fun’ behaviour and it killed him even though he was in a supposedly ‘safe’ environment!

School authorities have been and are tightening up on school proms; “They’re trying to completely eliminate drinking and drugs from high school proms this year. For the first time, Brockville Police, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Brockville Fire Department officials toured three high schools with a ‘safe prom’ presentation in an effort to save lives and prevent teenagers from ruining their futures with a drunk-driving conviction -or worse.”

The Upper Canada District School Board is taking a strong stand against what has become an accepted ‘norm’ among the parents and community; “The public school board will crack down on the use of alcohol and illegal substances at school events, which it says is a reflection of culture. Speaking at a board meeting Wednesday, Upper Canada District School Board chairman Greg Pietersma said the board has a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude about students drinking at school-sanctioned events. ‘There should be a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and alcohol at school events,'”

These sentiments were echoed by the Director of Education; “Director of education David Thomas remarked student drinking is a reflection of culture. ‘This is a cultural issue; this isn’t just an issue with the kids in school, . . .  When we decide we’re going to stand against this culture and we’re going to draw a line in the sand, it’s going to take some time because culture is the most difficult thing to change.’”

The prom may be made safe by strict supervision and severe consequences but how can we protect teenagers from confused and in some cases ( Christopher Skinner) drunken adults who supervise the pre and post prom parties?  Zero-tolerance approaches may make for nice ‘optics’ showing that something forceful will be done about a serious problem but how effective is suspending a teenager for a situation that everyone now admits is created by lax parents and the community?  Kids are more a victim of the moral confusion and ‘laissez-faire’ attitudes by the adults they should  be able to depend on for consistent guidance than willful perpetrators of premeditated crime.  I’m sure Christopher Skinner never set out to drink himself to death that fateful night of his final party.

Zero-tolerance approaches are coming into question.  Americans are rethinking the approach; “‘All the research has shown that zero tolerance is a failed policy,’ said Jim Freeman, senior attorney with the Advancement Project. ‘It has not succeeded in making schools safer or more effective. School districts and state legislators are moving away from zero tolerance, recognizing its devastating effect.'” ( Dale Mezzacappa)

Not all researchers in America would go that far however many question the touted efficacy of the zero-tolerance approach.  John H. Holloway writing for the ASCD states:  “If research indicates that zero tolerance policies are ineffective and have such negative consequences for students, why are they still in use? Curwin and Mendler (1999) posit that: ‘eliminating zero tolerance policies is a hard sell because the concept is simple to understand, sounds tough, and gives the impression of high standards for behavior. (p. 120)’  Nevertheless, they suggest that these very characteristics of zero tolerance policies actually exacerbate the problem of student misbehavior: ‘Any intervention for changing children’s behavior that is simple is simple-minded, and those that substitute formulas for decisions made by people who understand the circumstances are dangerous. It’s time for schools to develop legitimate high standards by refusing to fall for the lure of what is easy and sounds good and choosing instead what is truly best for children. (p. 120)'” (Curwin, R., & Mendler, A. (1999, October). Zero tolerance for zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan 81(1), 119–120)

Hopefully people will rethink  pointing the big gun of ‘zero-tolerance’ at the wrong target especially when it is clear that the problem isn’t the risk taking nature of teens but rather the ‘laissez-faire’ parental and community culture that our  teens are embedded in.  On other issues such as delinquency, our Ontario political leadership has  recognized  how zero tolerance misses the target; “We need to be providing programs for kids . . . to keep them in school. Suspending or expelling as a way of restoring a kid to academic success is not a successful path. That’s not the one we’re going to continue on.” Perhaps this acknowledgement will filter to other areas of student behaviour and down to more local levels of government.

Under aged drinking is illegal and wrong.  Drinking and/or drugging yourself into a stupor is wrong.  Encouraging young people to excessive dangerous behaviour is wrong because it can destroy them – physically and spiritually.  Why is that so hard for people to get?  Teenagers are not adults.  They need adults who will guide them,  who are more mature and have the courage to say ‘enough’ when it needs to be said.

Moral confusion and lack of consistent leadership at all levels has happened before in history;  “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25)  Maybe some day we will learn but until then our young people will pay the price – sometimes with their lives.