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TinotopiaLog → Teen Drinking and Ordnung ( 6 Jun 2003)
Friday 06 June 2003

Teen Drinking and Ordnung

I really have to start resisting the temptation to write about some of the things I see in the news. Some of these stories are so absurd in themselves that I don’t have much to add. Let’s see, though.

Today’s New York Times tells that story about the prom at Scarsdale High School. The headline says that limos are banned this year, but the full story is worse:

On prom night, June 12, Scarsdale High School seniors — in slinky strapless gowns and uncomfortable bow ties and cummerbunds — will have to be dropped off at school by their parents, attend a pre-prom party organized by the PTA and then climb aboard buses along with faculty chaperons.

Apparently, ‘scores’ of students were drunk at Scarsdale’s homecoming dance last fall, and this is the school’s attempt to prevent a repeat of that experience.

I can certainly symapthize with the school authorities on this one — it’s entirely legitimate for them to take steps to try to prevent even a minority of students showing up incredibly drunk for the prom — but still I can’t help but wonder whether their strategy isn’t going to be counterproductive.

Their strategy is based entirely around infantilization of the students: they have to be brought to the school by their parents (i.e. they can’t drive themselves), where they’ll be supervised until they’re trundled off to wherever the prom is, after which they’ll be brought back to the school and issued back to their parents. Statistically speaking, since the prom is held in June and since people tend to turn 18 sometime in the twelve months following the beginning of their senior year in high school, the majority of the people being treated this way are legal adults. They can vote and be elected to many public offices; they can serve in the military; they are full legal participants in our society, except that they’re not allowed to posess this molecule:


That’s C2H5OH, or ethanol, which is the active ingredient in beer.

The school is entirely justified in trying to keep people from showing up sloppy drunk at a shindig it’s hosting.

In doing this by very closely supervising the activities of these legal adults, though, is the school making things better, or worse? These people will soon leave high school, and will live in a world where their activities are not so closely monitored. Eventually, they will live in a world where they can legally purchase and consume all the ethanol they want. Amazingly enough, as restrictions on youth drinking have become more and more, well, restrictive, young people have started drinking less and less responsibly once those restrictions are lifted. This, of course, is just used as evidence for even more zero tolerance and more restrictions.

Wouldn’t it be better to teach the kids to drink responsibly? I realize that the laws put the school in a bind here; but couldn’t the school simply refuse admission to anyone who showed up drunk, and throw out anyone who became drunk while at the prom? The problem here, after all, is that these kids are not behaving responsibly. You don’t make people less responsible, not more, by herding them around and closely controlling their activities.

For people of any age, there are social restrictions on when and how much one should drink. But the moral absolutism that declares that anyone under 21 years of age should not drink at all actually leads to less real control over drinking by young people, not more.

Drinking alcohol at all is, for someone under 21 in the United States, an act of rebellion. It’s a violation of the law, and of the prevailing mainstream social opinions on the matter. A law that mandated the death penalty for muggers would result in a lot of mugging victims being killed; if you’re facing the same penalty, there is be no legal advantage to leaving witnesses behind. Similarly, since taking even one drink is illegal (and, according to some, immoral) for a young person, the systems that society has developed over thousands of years for consuming alcohol in a responsible manner are of no use. So teenagers — who are unfamiliar with drinking in the first place — are the people in our society least likely to drink in any kind of situation where responsibility is encouraged.

Banning limos from the prom, particularly given stories like this one from the Washington Post recently, about teenagers hiring ever-larger and more-absurd vehicles, might be a good idea simply in the interest of good taste. But extreme in loco parentis protection of legal adults from their own stupid decisions is a sick and dangerous idea, and one that’s destined not just to fail but to backfire.

Posted by tino at 17:51 6.06.03
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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: old enough to vote, old enough to fight, old enough to drink.

I was of legal U.S. drinking age for exactly eight days of my three-year Army hitch. My first legal drink was a Heineken in, of all places, Bahrain, in 1991. I would have to wait fourteen months for my first legal drink in this country.

This, of course, didn’t stop me from drinking. In fact, in attempts to avoid detection, we would wind up doing really stupid things, like the night me and three buddies drove around Lower Bucks County with a case of Budweiser, drinking and listening to Ramones songs on a tape deck.

Problem is, because some high school students turn 18 before they graduate, MADD and others of that ilk don’t want Little Johnny (now an adult in all aspects but booze) to corrupt his underage classmates. Raise the age to 19, and you have the problem of the dumb kids getting beer for everyone in their class.

Personally, I’d like to see the military be granted special dispensation in all states: go into a bar with an Active Duty ID at 18, and you can be served. Sorry, reservists; you need to determine if your desire for legal hooch outweighs your desire for only playing soldier on weekends.

Obviously, since I’m already over 21, this doesn’t affect me at all. I can then claim altruistic high ground. Unlike a certain former President and his recent desire to see the 22nd Amendment repealed. ;)

(Honestly, if he wanted any credibility on that issue at all, he’d suggest a provision in the repeal that allows only Presidents who began their first term after it went into effect to be eligible for more than two terms. But that’s just a wee bit off-topic.)

Posted by: Twonk at June 9, 2003 11:08 AM

“…couldn’t the school simply refuse admission to anyone who showed up drunk, and throw out anyone who became drunk while at the prom?”

i agree with you on most points, and i also think that this prom would be pretty ridiculous, but one question that comes to mind is this: what is the school supposed to do with those kids who either showed up drunk or got drunk at the prom? if you throw out a kid who drove him/herself to the prom, then you’ve just put another drunk driver on the road.

shrug it’s yer basic no-win situation, IMO.

Posted by: Ellen at June 11, 2003 04:29 PM

Ah, just call the cops on them. It’s illegal to be drunk in public, after all, and it’s illegal for minors to drink. While I am in general opposed to both of those laws (because I think they are applied unevenly and have broad unintended consequences) this is actually the very kind of situation they were enacted to deal with.

Posted by: Tino at June 11, 2003 05:19 PM

Scenario 1: Teen becomes drunk while at prom. School officials choose to send the person home. Person is intoxicated and unsafe to drive.

Scenario 2: 21 year old becomes drunk while at bar. Bartender tells person to leave because he/she is too drunk. Person is intoxicated and unsafe to drive.

Problem: How do the two people get home without driving under the influence and possibly causing a accident?

Solution: School officials and bartender call a parent, a friend, or a cab.

Posted by: Scott at October 19, 2003 09:17 PM

I came across your article when I was looking for stories that included my home town—Scarsdale. I graduated from scarsdale the year before the “homecomming scandal.” Year after year there have been many incidents of kids being “soppy drunks” at homecomming, however this year it was different, because the spotlight was put on Scarsdale. Anyways the limitations put on the seniors is completely absurd. There were absolutely no limitations put on my prom, like where it could be—ect. The princible is just trying to cover his ass for allowing students year after year to come beyond messed up to school events. There was very little focus on alcohaul education, and responsible drinking, and stopping a friend from driving when he has been drinking or anyting else for that matter. IN the end many kids came to prom rolling or tripping because pills are easier to hide than alcohaul.

Posted by: Jessie at June 17, 2004 01:17 AM

Just to let “ellen” and “tino” know….Scasdale had a policy that if kids were drunk then they would send kids C.O.D. in a cab, home to their parents.

Posted by: mimi at June 17, 2004 09:17 AM