April 30, 2013

We used to call it the Carroll County Death Lottery. Most springs in past decades, amid the celebration of graduation and prom and senior skip days, we would face the awful task of reporting a death, sometimes more, stemming from teen drunken driving. It could be any kid, really, a great athlete, top student, or a trouble-making discipline case. Rich, poor, popular or on the social fringes. The death lottery literally was just that.

Our county has been spared the pain in recent years of deaths connected to such events and alcohol.

The after-prom parties are a major help, not just with the nights in question, but with the positive messaging. If a collection of parents and teachers and local businesspeople goes to such lengths to keep our young people off the bottle on these signature nights, we have no doubt many kids see the value in avoiding potentially tragic situations later.

Law enforcement and other advocates have done exemplary work as well. And the kids themselves, a generation far less naive in many respects than previous ones, seems to understand limits in a way that escaped others.

But as the rites of passage pass, the graduation speeches fade, the prom dresses are squirreled away or dispatched from homes, there's a danger of complacency, warns the USA Today in a disturbing story about underage drinking published last week in The Des Moines Register.

"Parents would be mistaken to breathe a sigh of relief as the school year ends," The USA Today reports. "About twice as many teens report drinking during summer vacation as after prom or graduation."

Nearly a quarter of teens - 23 percent - admit to driving at some point under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or prescription drugs used illegally, a new survey of 1,708 11th- and 12th-graders by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and insurer Liberty Mutual. The USA Today reports.

A fifth of the kids say they think drinking while driving improves their ability to do the latter - although one has to wonder if those survey answers are the result of irony or teen angst.

The takeway. There can be no let up in vigilance in preventing teen drinking and driving. Casual summer nights can be deadly, with no free iPods to win at dry after-prom parties.

Much of the discussion at a recent town-hall forum in Carroll aimed at preventing teen substance abuse centered on parental response to the high school, early college party culture. Some parents actually will empower their kids by providing alcohol, while others work to keep their kids off the road, acknowledging that drinking does occur, and working to prevent worst-case scenarios by telling kids to stay overnight with friends or call them for a ride if they've been drinking, members of the panel said.

"That's kind of how they've dealt with it," said Chad Klein, varsity football coach at Kuemper Catholic High School. "I think they're a little more aware of trying to get them from behind the wheel."

Educators and experts said it is possible for parents to stand on principle and demand that kids abstain from alcohol until they are of legal age.

The advent of cellphones - which can pose dangers for texting and driving - also makes it easier for kids who have been drinking to call friends or even parents for rides. While some parents take the zero-tolerance approach, others will implore their kids to just call, no matter what, no questions, no consequences. You can sleep off a hangover, but you can't shake death.

It is not our job to pass judgment on parenting strategies.

But with the SADD numbers on summer drinking and driving we felt it our responsibility to draw attention to this issue and help sound the warning. Yes, your kid may wake up safe the morning after prom. That's only a start.

Klein made the most insightful observation during the forum - one all parents should understand.

Carroll's strong family and social networks can work against efforts to fight underage drinking, Klein said. College students enjoy coming back to Carroll and they inevitably mix with high school students, who are often friends and even brothers and sisters. The college students bring their developing worldviews and habits, which can involve alcohol and partying, he said.

"Kids like to come back," Klein said. "That makes it tougher on kids who live here."

Klein added, "They all end up at the same places."