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Teenagers and alcohol: Through the lens of one high school homecoming week

One student reported that a group met before school, with many adding alcohol to their innocent-looking fast food drinks.

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One student reported that a group met before school, with many adding alcohol to their innocent-looking fast food drinks.

BY LENA SCHWALLENBERG

Palm Harbor University High

Teenage drinking is not new. It may not even be more prevalent than in our parents' day.

But it does seem more out in the open, more apparent. Gather a group of teenagers from schools around Tampa Bay, public, private, large and small, and ask: How many of you see students who have brought alcohol to school, or who have been drinking somewhere before they arrived, or who boast about drinking on social networks? Almost all hands shoot up.

Of course that's an unscientific method of getting at the intensity of the issue. As is trying to determine by anecdotal reporting whether one school is more likely than another to be experiencing an escalation of the problem. That is not the mission of this story. But when students see this behavior on a routine basis at their schools, it merits ongoing discussion.

This is not meant to be a scientific study, merely a look at the issue of teenage drinking through the lens of homecoming at one school, Palm Harbor University High. For this story, tb-two* interviewed staff members and students at the A-rated school, home to two prestigious attractors, a medical magnet and an International Baccalaureate program. Most did not want to be identified. Principal Christen Gonzalez declined to comment, saying it was not a good idea to remind students of their mistakes.

The activities written about were relayed by students (tb-two* staffers and others) and school staff, including the school resource officer and a school psychology teacher. In the box on this page, you will find an interview with him about teenage behavior involving alcohol and other risky endeavors.

As you read this, don't get hung up on the school's name. In fact, we're omitting it from here on, because the events described could have taken place nearly anywhere.

Zoom in: One school

On the first day of homecoming week this year, students in all grades arrived early, dressed in clashing patterns and Crocs, for Fashion Disaster Day. They flooded Instagram and Twitter with an array of good-humored photos; the week was off to a spirited start.

On the second day, however, the atmosphere changed.

On this morning, only seniors showed up early, gathering in the student parking lot for group stretches and impromptu dance parties. Clothed in neon sportswear, high ponytails and men's short-shorts, seniors blasted Madonna and Michael Jackson from boom boxes. Decades Day is regarded as sacred for seniors — the occasion students often look forward to even more than graduation. The unwritten but traditional goal of the day? To be as crazy as possible.

Many students showed up late to first period toting Chick-fil-A drink cups, which made reappearances through fifth period and both lunches. A student member of the school spirit club who did not want to be identified said around two dozen kids met up at the restaurant before school, and that approximately half (excluding the designated drivers) added some form of alcohol to their drinks.

When lunch came around, the seniors, per tradition, stormed through campus, into buildings, classrooms and the teaching auditorium. An estimated half of the 572 seniors took part, interrupting gym classes, running laps right through the middle of that day's activities, and they booed administrators who barricaded the cafeteria doors and confiscated boom boxes.

Outnumbered, the administrators were unable to stop the seniors from storming campus, during both lunch periods. More important, they were unable to Breathalyze everyone, despite the fact they knew kids were drinking.

"(The school) will have to make changes for homecoming week (next year), and make harsher consequences known beforehand," said Jeffrey Cuttitta, the school resource officer.

The following day, Twin Day, things escalated.

A group of senior girls dressed as frat guys, carrying around root beer bottles in foam Koozies. They posted staged pictures of themselves pretending to be passed out or urinating in the men's restrooms, hashtagging their tweets and photos with "#TFM": total frat move. At lunch, they played water pong in the cafeteria, pretending it was beer pong.

Eight to 10 students were tested throughout the day for alcohol, and four came back positive, including one student who vomited on an administrator, according to a school staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They were all juniors.

Thursday and Friday, Hawaiian and School Spirit Days, came and went. More attention was being paid to the grand finales of homecoming week, Friday's game and Saturday's dance.

All administrators and five deputies ran security for the game, and an officer stood at the entrance to the home side of the field, flashing a light in people's eyes and checking bags for contraband. Nonetheless, many students in the stands ended up intoxicated before being tested and escorted out, well into the game.

The main target of the testing? The school spirit group. Members of this invitation-only group, run by three seniors and not officially affiliated with the school, were subjected to Breathalyzer testing throughout the game. Though members admit that the group suffers a "bad reputation," they say that it's not an entirely accurate one.

"Yes, there are (members) who only want to drink and be loud, but that's not what (the spirit club) is meant to be," said a senior member who asked not to be identified. "So many actually care about our team, and we support them through it all, even bad games. Yeah, a lot of people are drunk. But a lot of (non members) are drunk at the games, too."

According to the school staff member, the spirit club members were, in a sense, targeted for testing because they brought attention to themselves with their flashy clothes and loud demeanor. Plus, it's easier to pick out intoxicated students in a large group than one or two sitting quietly in the stands.

By the end of the homecoming game, eight students (one of whom attended another Pinellas high school) tested positive for alcohol and had been escorted off campus. They were suspended for five days and required to participate in the FACE IT program (Families Acting Collaboratively to Educate and Involve Teens), which helps students ages 12-18 who may be dealing with alcohol, tobacco or other drug problems. They were removed from the National Honor Society roster and barred from attending the homecoming dance.

The events of the night before had an effect on behavior at the dance. "I was completely shocked to know how many people were sober at homecoming," the senior spirit group member said. "I actually don't know of one person who wasn't. Administration did a good job of security and getting the word out that they were serious."

Only two students tested positive at the dance, according to the school staff member.

Zoom out: The bigger picture

David Valdez, an IB Psychology teacher at Palm Harbor University High who also teaches psychology at the University of South Florida, spoke with tb-two* about what might lead high school students to risky behaviors in public.

"Juniors and seniors are currently in the stage of 'identity vs. role' confusion. That means that they are trying out different versions of themselves," according to Erikson's theory of moral development, Valdez said. "Some (are) still exploring, which makes them more susceptible to peer pressure. They might do what others are doing to feel included. It's scary to be on your own."

Social networking sites have provided an increase in awareness of such exploration, as students seem to post anything, from amazing Halloween costumes to innocent selfies to documentation of illegal activities.

Teenagers may try out risky acts in public, such as at a football game or even a classroom, because of a sense of infallibility. "They may believe that the rules are protecting them from something they don't need protecting from," Valdez said. "They don't see the value in what those rules do to protect them and those around them."

Teenagers and alcohol: Through the lens of one high school homecoming week 10/30/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 31, 2013 5:40pm]

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