Montgomery County principals hold town hall meeting to discuss solutions to curb teen drinking

- Principals from three Montgomery County high schools came together Thursday night at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda to host their first-ever town hall meeting on teenage drinking.

Montgomery County police say they bust one to two teenage drinking parties every weekend and this time of year is potentially dangerous as schools get ready to celebrate homecoming.

“We are all about to have our homecoming dances,” said Walt Whitman High School principal Dr. Alan Goodwin. “That is a time when students sometimes like to experiment too much and so the more safety messages we can get out at around now, the better.”

“I'm worried about drinking in our community,” said parent Bridget Cowie. “I know at homecoming there have been kids sent home in ambulances and I don’t want that to happen to my son.”

The discussion at this meeting was about how to keep students from binge drinking and making bad decisions that can have catastrophic consequences. But officials also have a message for parents as laws are toughening on them too.

On Oct. 1, Alex and Calvin's Law goes into effect in Maryland. It is named after two Wootton High School graduates – Alexander Murk and Calvin Li – who were killed in a drunk driving accident last year after leaving an underage drinking party. This new law adds possible jail time to adults who host parties with minors drinking.

School leaders also told parents to stop letting their children drink before attending school events. Principals said too often teenagers are getting violently ill and are even passing out at dances and football games.

They reviewed the stiffer penalties going into effect for adults who host parties where teenagers consume alcohol and are warning that kids are now disguising alcohol-carrying containers as tampons, underwear and ties.

“In the 2014-15 school year, I attended two funerals – one towards the beginning of year and one right after the school year had ended, and both students perished in car accidents where alcohol was a factor,” said Dr. Donna Redmond Jones, principal at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “It is so important for people to understand that we are not talking about other people's children. We are talking about children who are smart, children who are involved with extracurricular activities, children who are talented, and they are still making very destructive, dangerous decisions.”

The three principals said students from their schools are partying together so parents need to speak frankly about what is happening and how to get it under control.

“Kids are always going to make kid decisions and sometimes they are going to make poor choices, so the more often that you bring it up, the more you talk about it, the more they hear from the school and the parents and the communities, the more they are going to think about it the next time they have to make that decision about whether to take a drink or not,” said Walter Johnson High School principal Jennifer Baker.

“When you are talking to your teenage children and they say, ‘Dad, everyone else gets to do this,’ and you don’t really have context to say is that true or not true, it kind of makes it more of a community dialogue this way,” said parent Alon Vogel.

Everyone at the meeting wanted to talk about real world solutions and here are a couple of ideas that were discussed:

- Stop sleepovers

Officials said they are bringing teenagers together late at night, making it easier for them to sneak out and get in trouble and the parent at that house might not be as vigilant as you are.

- Have a safety phrase so your kids can get out of situations that make them uncomfortable

Often students are afraid to tell parents they have been drinking or may not want to say anything in front of their friends. So work out an easy way for them to tell you they need help. An example used – “I lost my contacts and I can’t see. Will you come get me?” Then promise not to ask questions until you get them home safely.

School officials also asked parents to talk about new Good Samaritan laws with their children. These laws went into effect last year in Virginia and Maryland and they say even if you are a minor who is drinking, if you call for medical help because someone is having a medical emergency related to drugs or alcohol, neither you nor the victim will be prosecuted.

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