By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

What’s worse — having to punish your high-schooler and deal with a legal problem because he was caught drinking when a homecoming keg party was broken up by police, or having the same problem occur beyond your control once he’s out of state in college or the military?

Keeping children safe is an obvious priority, but the best way to do it is a matter of debate between the supporters and opponents of the Amethyst Initiative, a petition signed by 130 college and university presidents advocating a new debate about whether the legal drinking age should be lowered back to 18.

For North Springs Charter High School for Arts and Sciences’ head counselor, Ann Wilson, that’s a bad idea.

Wilson spent six years in Germany as an adolescent substance abuse counselor under an Army contract. In Germany, 16-year-olds can buy beer, and 18-year-olds can buy hard liquor.

She was embedded in Army-run high schools and said the experience left her with mixed feelings about lowering the drinking age. “In general, what I found is the kids got into a lot of trouble because it was so readily accessible. It wasn’t just alcohol. It was also marijuana and hash, and the best defense we had was to work with the parents and the military community to put as many barriers as possible between the students and the drugs and alcohol.”

The Amethyst advocates, including Lawrence Schall of Oglethorpe University and Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College, argue that a lower drinking age could reduce the deadly binge drinking that occurs when young adults inexperienced with alcohol take their newfound freedom too far when they leave home and arrive on campus. The idea is that college students would be less likely to overindulge if their drinking was legal, especially if they were old enough to drink legally while still under their parents’ supervision.

But at a time when incidents of high school drinking, such as this summer’s exploits by North Springs students visiting Scotland, are far from rare, those who support 21 as the drinking age and want a hard-line approach to underage drinking said any change to the law would make alcohol more readily available for younger and younger teens. The result could be a more relaxed attitude toward drinking in society, leading to patterns of increased alcoholism, violence and automobile accidents.

The Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety came out strongly against the Amethyst Initiative (www.amethystinitiative.org), arguing that the higher drinking age has saved 900 lives of 18- to 20-year-olds a year, including 36 in Georgia.

“Lowering the legal drinking age would have the undeniable effect of making alcohol more accessible to youth,” said Bob Dallas, who heads the highway safety office. “If Georgia lowers the drinking age, more of our young people will drink and drive, and more of our young people will die.”

Some community members have seen what happens when 18-year-olds drink legally.

Georgia ended a decade-long experiment with a lower drinking age when it adopted 21 as the legal age after Congress passed a law in 1984 demanding that states raise the age or lose highway funds. Sandy Springs police Lt. Steve Rose said that when 18-year-olds could drink, police had to address many more problems resulting from alcohol consumption.

“I don’t think (lowering the drinking age) is the answer. I guarantee you if the drinking age went to 18, alcohol-related arrests would go up,” Rose said.

Simply limiting students’ access to alcohol improves the situation, North Springs’ Wilson said. Every high school has some 18-year-old students, and minors are more likely to be friends with them than with 21-year-olds, meaning that lowering the drinking age to 18 would create a new way for younger students to get alcohol.

Apart from the long-term health risks associated with drinking at a young age, there are more immediate dangers, including alcohol poisoning and car crashes.

“I have concern that kids at that age are just not mature enough to handle alcohol,” Wilson said. “Some are, but some aren’t.”

Communication matters

Whether they go to college, the military or a civilian job after high school, eventually all children pass the point where their parents can supervise them. Temptations and pitfalls exist beyond parental control, and kids make mistakes, so a trusting relationship is important for dealing with dangerous situations.

According to Rose, it’s important for parents to discuss alcohol and drinking and driving with their children before an incident takes place. Parents have the responsibility to “keep those lines of communications open,” and if something does happen, it’s important to stay calm and collected, he said.

“You don’t need to discuss it that night. … You don’t want them to regret the decision to go home with their parents” instead of trying to drive drunk to avoid getting in trouble, he said.

For Heather Bradford, a guidance counselor at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, a central challenge in addressing underage drinking is encouraging parents to speak with their children.

The conversation isn’t an easy one, especially if a child is reluctant to participate. But she said it’s important for parents to convey a clear message: “Yes, there are going to be consequences. At the same time, we are here for you, and we want to make sure that you’re safe above all else.”

In case something happens, parents and children should have some kind of agreement in advance so they aren’t making decisions under stress, she said.

“I think a lot of parents are afraid that even talking about it will give students ideas, which we know is not the case,” she said.

High-schoolers tend to hold a reverse logic in that they’re more afraid of punishment or embarrassment than of death. The concept of death as real and inevitable solidifies later in life, Bradford said.

“Any time you can really tell students exactly how many legal consequences there really are, you can tell they perk up and pay attention,” she said.

Make consequences clear

Most schools and school systems have a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol, and some use presentations and preventive education to push students to contemplate the consequences of drinking and driving.

Riverwood High School Principal Eddie Echols simply said, “Anything that’s against the law, we will file charges.”

Atlanta Public Schools’ director of health, physical education and athletics, Billette Owens Ashford, said her school system combines a zero-tolerance policy with instruction in health classes. A number of student clubs throughout the system promote drug- and alcohol-free lifestyles.

Owens Ashford said the programs are designed to teach students: “These are the things you should expect if you engage in these at-risk behaviors. It interferes with your goals, and it becomes a barrier to success in your life.”

The system doesn’t “preach to use it responsibly, because they’re not supposed to be using it all,” she said of alcohol.

Some schools’ junior and senior classes host “Ghost Outs.” About a week before the event, a wrecked car is brought to the school campus and left there until it generates curiosity. Then police, fire and ambulance personnel visit with all of their rescue equipment and re-enact an alcohol-related crash. They cut a volunteer out of the damaged vehicle, take the passengers away on stretchers and in ambulances, and “arrest” the student playing the driver.

“This is based on that whole theory that students really need to think ahead, and they probably didn’t understand,” Owens Ashford said. “When you see it, when it’s re-enacted this way, it gives you really an opportunity to internalize what could happen.”

The final event in a Ghost Out is a mock funeral.

Lauren Winborne, a former Atlanta Public Schools teacher and co-founder of It Won’t Happen to Me, a nonprofit promoting safe teen driving, said she speaks with parents about “having less rigidity and some understanding.”

It’s vital that parents work with their children to develop trust and ensure driving under the influence never occurs, she said. She suggested it would make sense to raise the driving age and said it’s realistic to assume many young people will drink once they leave home.

“They’re let loose. They have no accountability except themselves, and they’re going to drink,” she said. “You can enlist in the Army at 18, but you can’t drink a beer when you’re 18. I think it’s preposterous.

“We tell kids once you get in a car with somebody that’s been drinking, it’s basically over. You’re not going to get out.”