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Teenage Wasteland

An out-of-control party scene unites Lamorinda parents


At about midnight this past New Year’s Eve, Carole Dean got a message on her cell phone that made her heart race. It was Dean’s former neighbor. “She had left a message around 10:30 or 11,” Dean recalls. “She said, ‘Listen, Carole, I wanted to make sure you know what’s going on.’ ” The house Dean had just moved out of, across town in Moraga, was full of kids, the neighbor said, and they were having an out-of-control party.

Dean called the police and rushed over to the house. Music was blasting and teenagers were milling around outside. “They were all drunk, and some were screaming,” Dean says. She and a friend pushed their way through the adolescent throng to get inside, where they found more drunk and stoned kids.

Some were making out; others were doing bong hits in her old bedroom. Beer and wine bottles and trash were scattered everywhere. Some of the “guests” had smashed pots in the garden, torn up part of the back deck, and taken rods from the closets to punch holes in doors. As soon as the kids saw the adults, they ran to their cars and drove off.Dean eventually found her son, a junior at Miramonte High School, who was supposed to have been spending the evening at a friend’s house. He admitted that he and his friends had planned to go to another party. When it got canceled, they decided to host a celebration of their own. Word about their party quickly spread through the Lamorinda teen network via cell phone calls and text messaging.

The huge bash that resulted gave Dean a glimpse of the local party scene that is mostly hidden from parents. Dean explains that when her son had asked earlier in the evening to go his friend’s house, she thought, “Why not?” He was a pretty good kid, and she knew his friends. “Basically, like other parents, I wanted to trust my son,” she says, “and I was totally wrong.”
She was shocked by what she walked into that night: the drunkenness, the extensive pot smoking, the blatant mixture of alcohol and automobiles, how destructive the kids got. “It was so violent,” she says, referring to the damage done to the house.

But the Moraga police officer who walked through Dean’s house with her to catalog the damage told her that this was the second huge teenager party he’d been called to that night and that parties like it take place every weekend in Lamorinda. “I’ve been living in Moraga for seven years,” Dean says. “How come I had never heard of this before?” After talking to friends and fellow Miramonte parents, she found they’d also been in the dark. “How come nobody ever talked to other parents about this and said, ‘We have a problem?’ ”

Wake-up call

Dean decided to get the word out herself. The next week, she wrote a letter to parents for the Miramonte High parents club newsletter. Titled Where Was Your Teen on New Year’s Eve?, it described the scene at her house. In it, she admitted her son was in the wrong but pointed out that he wasn’tthe only one.

Her letter hit a nerve across Lamorinda and Walnut Creek. Some parents had already heard of parties like Dean’s New Year’s Eve nightmare: A female student at Las Lomas in Walnut Creek needed stitches after being hit in the face with a bottle during a fight at a party; a Lafayette house was trashed during a rager hosted by a girl when her parents were out of town.

Soon, parents across the Acalanes Union High School District—which includes Miramonte in Orinda, Las Lomas in Walnut Creek, Campolindo in Moraga, and Acalanes in Lafayette—decided to work together on a district-wide program called Healthy Choices. (Parents at Acalanes High School had started the program in December 2004 in response to out-of-control teen parties. They were also concerned about kids showing up at school drunk and struggling with alcohol or drug addiction.)

Healthy Choices is the latest effort by parents to confront drug and alcohol use among students in this district, which covers a swath of suburbia known for its prosperous neighborhoods and top-ranked schools. What’s new about Healthy Choices, says Laura Perloff, chair of the Healthy Choices committee at Acalanes High School, is that it bundles its substance abuse prevention message into a comprehensive program that aims to help teens make good choices, not just about alcohol and drugs but also about sex, nutrition, exercise, and managing stress. 

What’s also new is that Healthy Choices advocates are focused on changing attitudes among parents. Dean says that a majority of parents don’t realize the extent to which students are drinking and using drugs—or they choose to ignore it. This might seem surprising, considering that many parents in this district tend to be super-involved in nurturing their children’s success. But, as Dean says, “this is a make-no-waves community,” where some parents don’t want to know if their kids aren’t being model citizens. These parents might also feel that using drugs and alcohol is simply part of growing up—as was the common belief when they were growing up in the ’60s and ’70s.

“There’s an acceptance among some parents that it is a rite of passage,” says Melinda Reilly, a Miramonte parent who in January started a blog, http://www.parentsheadsup.blogspot.com , where parents and students talk about the teen party scene.

New concerns, real risks  
Healthy Choices advocates say new studies offer more and more reasons to discourage teens from this so-called rite of passage. The 2003 California Healthy Kids Survey shows that the district’s 11th graders drink and use marijuana significantly more than the state average. When it comes to binge drinking—defined as five or more drinks in one sitting—“we’re off the scales,” says Jim Negri, the superintendent of the Acalanes district. A Columbia University study found that stressed-out teens flush with spending money, like those in affluent Lamorinda, are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than poor, inner-city kids.

“In the early 1990s, kids were more likely to just have a couple beers,” says Ellen Peterson, a former Acalanes parent and psychology teacher at Diablo Valley College who for the past 10 years has authored a biweekly report for Acalanes parents on alcohol and drug issues. “Now the whole purpose is to pass out, to get totally blotto, to do things you wouldn’t want to be held accountable for”—including having unprotected sex.

Also, the prevailing view in the medical community is that the human brain continues to develop into the early twenties. This means that teens who drink even moderate amounts of alcohol risk damaging their memory, judgment, and cognitive and emotional development. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that teenagers who start drinking before age 15 are five times as likely to report alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

The expanded Healthy Choices committee is now working with school districts, cities, business, and church leaders on various programs for all four high schools and within the district.

One of the committee’s plans is to ask parents to sign a pledge that they won’t host parties where underage guests are served alcohol or drugs. Another involves urging police in Lamorinda and Walnut Creek to work together to put more officers on patrol on Friday and Saturday nights. Miramonte parents have asked the Orinda police to deputize citizens so that they can cite teens at late-night parties and have requested that the Orinda City Council back state legislation that would increase fines for parents who serve minors alcohol.

Within the district, parents are asking administrators to beef up what the parents call an inadequate substance abuse curriculum. The curriculum consists of about 10 sessions during ninth-grade health class. Negri says the district is looking at several options, including adding a course in 11th grade, but that probably won’t happen until the 2007-08 school year at the earliest. Parents are also asking the district to coordinate its curriculum with that of the four elementary feeder school districts. They would like a more comprehensive, multiyear curriculum, such as what’s offered in the San Ramon Valley School District, where substance abuse lessons taught in middle and high school are based on decision-making skills taught in elementary school.

Of course, the main route to success for Healthy Choices will be getting students to buy into it, says Marsha Harris, chair of Miramonte’s Healthy Choices committee. One idea is to train juniors and seniors to coach freshman and sophomores on how to handle risky situations, like being pressured to drink or to get into a car with an intoxicated friend.

Ryan Guptill, who graduated from Miramonte in June, says students will best respond to programs that reject the “just say no” message and focus on minimizing harm by teaching students ways to limit drinking, respond to alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses, and avoid drunk driving at all costs. “For what it’s worth, drinking is part of teen culture,” he says. “No matter how hard the parents and the community try, some teens will always choose to use drugs and alcohol. We know this, and we recognize the need for programs that are focused on keeping our peers safe.”

These days, Dean looks back in awe of what’s been accomplished since she was shocked into reality last winter. She had expected parents to be angry with her for publishing her letter, which suggested that they more vigilantly supervise their kids. But if she ruffled any feathers, those moms and dads have kept silent. All the e-mail she has received is positive, which means that maybe Lamorinda isn’t such a “make-no-waves” community after all. “Parents said, ‘Yes, you’re right, we have a problem, and we need to address it.’ ”

Tips for parents on how to survive the teen party scene
From the Healthy Choices Parent’s Guide, here are suggestions on how to keep your teens, their friends, and your home safe.
In general
 Make expectations clear about drinking and drug use.
 Get to know your teen’s friends and his or her parents.
 Never leave your teen at home without supervision if you go out of town.
 Model responsible drinking.
If your teen is going out
 Get the name, address, and phone number of the host.
 Call the host parents ahead of time to find out if they will be there and whether alcohol will be served. If your teen is spending the night, make sure you and the host parents agree on curfew time and other issues.
 Offer to provide food and supervision for the party, and offer to drive your teen and her friends to and from the party.
 Establish rules about your teen checking in during the evening and if plans change.
 Establish a curfew, and stay up to greet your teen upon arrival.
If your Teen is hosting a party
 Create a guest list, and keep it small.
 Get other parents to help you chaperone.
 Lock up all your alcohol, and watch for teens trying to smuggle it in under jackets, in water bottles, and in the punch bowl.
 Have a plan of action if anyone arrives drunk or stoned.
 Don’t let guests leave and then return.
 If things get out of hand, immediately call police for help. If someone else calls before you do, you might end up on the wrong side of an investigation. 

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