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Teens' swagger turns into a stagger at prom

NORTH TAMPA — It's spring, and almost as old as high school is the rite of passage known as senior prom.

Kids pair up. Girls model floor-length gowns. Guys strut around in rented tuxedos. Maybe they have a drink or two. Some arrive at the venue in limos — at least they're not driving, right?

Still, it's a school event and the legal drinking age is 21.

So what do you do when the swagger becomes a stagger?

Officials at Chamberlain High School faced that dilemma in the aftermath of their March 26 soiree at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

We were tipped off by an irate reader who had heard a group of offending students got a slap on the wrist — not even that, in fact, as their suspensions were withheld for lack of any Breathalyzers.

A Chamberlain student I know confirmed there was some drunkenness at the event.

Who's to say if it was more or less than you'd find at any prom?

The incident in question went down like this, according to school district officials and the Tampa Police Department, which had an off-duty officer working security that night:

A group of kids arrived in a limo. It appeared that some were inebriated. Feeling no pain — except for one, who became ill. You might say he produced evidence of his drinking.

The adults sprang into action.

They tended to the student to make sure he was not injured or in need of emergency medical treatment.

And they called parents. Some teens were sent home. No prom for them. And they were warned of dire consequences back at school.

Police Officer David Hancock did not report the incident to headquarters because he saw no probable cause of a crime, according to department spokeswoman Janelle McGregor. Nor did he find grounds to administer breath tests.

He did have a look inside the limo. But by that time, it had been cleaned, top to bottom. The proper course of action, he determined, was to allow the school to handle things administratively.

Fast-forward to Judgment Day at Chamberlain. No one could say, with certainty, who had taken a drink and who had, as the saying goes, "just said no." The unlucky one with the weak stomach was suspended. Everyone else went on to face whatever consequences waited at home.

"I did what I felt was in the best interest for my students," principal Thomas Morrill said in an e-mail. He denied trying to keep the matter quiet, as our tipster had alleged.

That's encouraging. Speaking as a parent, a cover-up is the last thing I would want to see. If anything, the incident should serve as a conversation starter. College-bound seniors need to be fully informed about this most popular campus pastime.

Hancock's role is interesting, as he is also the school resource officer at Chamberlain. He declined to be interviewed, allowing McGregor to speak on his behalf.

I have to assume he is somewhat friendly with the kids and the administration. The way McGregor sees it, Hancock's familiarity with the kids and the adults made him a better judge of the severity of the matter.

Still, I wonder if Hancock wishes he had inspected the limo when it arrived. Is that something they routinely do at proms? If not, should they?

I know that when my kids go on a school orchestra trip, I have to drop their luggage off the night before for inspection. I have to sit through a grueling meeting where the kids and I are regaled with horrible fates that await them, should they even think about indulging in a controlled substance. Are kids advised, pre-prom, of this kind of no-tolerance policy? Or would that be considered extreme?

As children become teenagers, hurtling into young adulthood, the questions become almost Talmudic. Is it all right to allow them to drink in moderation, notwithstanding the law? Is that the best safeguard against binge drinking? And if an otherwise model student knocks back a few on prom night, how much punishment do we want to inflict?

I suppose the answer lies somewhere between looking the other way — and building a better mousetrap in time for next year's prom.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Teens' swagger turns into a stagger at prom 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 4:30am]
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