By Rebecca Nussbaum
Parents are being asked to help combat a binge drinking culture at the Upper School in light of the hospitalization of six intoxicated students at the unauthorized semiformal afterparty in January, a record number of parents at April 20’s Harvard-Westlake Parents Association board meeting were told.
The school has a plan to educate parents, provide parental support groups and encourage safe house contracts so parents can converse with their children about drugs and alcohol to prevent students from making poor choices, Dean Rose-Ellen Racanelli said. The school will also give all parents a copy of a Community of Concern drug and alcohol prevention booklet by the end of the summer, Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra said.
“It will give all of us a common platform,” Salamandra said, and ensure that parents are asking the same questions about the safety of their children.
Dean Tamar Adegbile told parents that students have been actively brainstorming and discussing how to prevent another dangerous situation like afterparty.
“Our Prefect Council has been amazing and very impressive in galvanizing their peers and really helping to lead the discussion about what can we do to change the culture,” she said.
Former English teacher, writer and columnist for The Atlantic and the New Yorker Caitlin Flanagan (Patrick Hudnut ’16) said that the school has made its stance against binge drinking perfectly clear and that it is now up to parents to present an equally strong front to their children.
“Schools are off the hook here,” Flanagan said.
She noted that Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts sent every parent a letter warning them of the annual unofficial afterparty and the drugs and alcohol that accompany it, and yet par
ents still willingly put their children in an unsafe environment.
The drinking culture has changed dramatically over the past 25 years so that at parties today, students either abstain from drinking any alcohol or drink with the goal of reaching oblivion, Flanagan said. She said that these two extreme mindsets reflect today’s extreme culture.
“It’s an extreme time,” she said. “Everything on the internet is extreme, what they see, what they experience, and I think the way they respond is in an extreme way.”
By allowing the binge drinking culture to exist, Flanagan said that parents are failing the sober kids even more than the drinkers themselves.
“We’ve given our good kids the worst job—to clean up a lot of vomit,” she said. “We say well, you’re the sober kids, make sure [the intoxicated kids] don’t die. That’s your night.”
Boys have not really changed their drinking habits while girls have quadrupled their drinking over the past 40 years, Flanagan said.
“Girls, for some reason, and there’s a lot of double standard here, but girls are the check on things,” she said. “They are the people who say ‘we’re not going to go too far in this way.’ And now you have girls drinking. It really changes the feeling of the night.”
It is unclear how the extreme drinking culture is affecting adolescents emotionally and psychologically, Flanagan said.
“We don’t know what it is like to come in on Monday morning and have a test and a quiz, and everybody saw you do something really embarrassing, really shaming,” Flanagan said. “You did something sexual in front of people. Your hair was full of vomit. You said things, and everybody knows, and everybody Facebooked it and everybody texted it, and now you have to go to school. What’s that like?”
Flanagan notes the extreme pressure to get into college that students feel from themselves and their parents.
“Nowadays, you could do every single thing asked of you, and today versus 25 years ago, that’s exponentially more, but you can still not get [into the college of your choice,]” she said. “And I think that’s scary. And I think they want a little oblivion.”
“There’s a very bad thing that’s happening, but we’re going to get it figured out. People are helping us figure it out. But we’ve got to make sure that our kids aren’t the collateral damage of all that.”
Attorney and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson (Solly ’06 and Havi ’08) suggested that parents use the law as a tool to help them say no to their children.
“Contrary to the thought that I can parent my kids any way I want, it’s not true,” Levenson said. “We live in a society and we have laws.”
At the meeting, Levenson reviewed the laws pertaining to underage drinking. No one under the age of 21 can either drink or possess alcohol. No adult may provide drinks to anyone under 21. Parents are held liable for any damages caused by alcohol that they provided. Anyone under 21 with any blood alcohol content will automatically lose his driver’s license for a year, and if someone is found driving with a blood alcohol content of .05, which is reached with fewer than two gulps of beer, he can be arrested for driving under the influence. No one under 21 may buy or attempt to buy alcohol. No one may use a false ID. It is illegal to be a passenger in a car that has liquor in it if you are under 21. It is illegal to break curfew, she said.
Possible consequences of association with alcohol include arrest, athletic disqualification, civil liability, legal fees, license revocation, fines, lost college opportunities, lost job opportunities, murder, and vehicular manslaughter.
“Let me tell you a little something about the police,” Levenson said. “When it comes to this area, they are class blind. They really don’t care that your child goes to Harvard-Westlake. In fact, they might have an extra chart saying we got another Harvard-Westlake kid.”
It is biologically crucial to ensure that adolescents refrain from drinking. Twenty percent of all teenagers who begin consuming alcohol at 15 years old will develop alcoholism at some point in their lives, Salamandra said.
“If you keep your kids sober until they go off to college, even if they do drink in college, you’ve still done a good job because you’ve postponed that date for their first hard intoxication, which is doing them a great biological favor,” former drug and alcohol counselor and probation officer Chaplain J. Young said.
“I think what all of us want is for the administration and the parents to really partner in helping to turn the culture, change the culture here and have events that we could really be comfortable with and feel students are safe at,” Adegbile said.