MY OLDEST CHILD IS NOW ABEAUTIFUL 15-YEAR-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, passing through that purgatory between childhood and adult life. She’s only a ninth-grader, yet she wants to spread her wings and taste life. So do all her friends. Baby-boomer parents think we know exactly what our teenagers are doing because, after all, we know what we were doing when we were teens. No way is she going to get away with what I pulled on my mother-or worse, do what I did in college-when she’s only in high school. But 1 have to admit-despite laws, rules, curfews and the best of intentions-we, her parents, are clueless.
I choked when she told me about friends-ninth-graders-bragging about how “neat” sex and drugs are. When she said she could buy marijuana outside any convenience store, I didn’t believe her. One night on our way to dinner at Cremona, an Italian restaurant on Routh Street, she told me she could be served liquor anytime, anywhere she wanted it. 1 called her bluff.
“OK,” I said, “you go in this restaurant and order us a couple of drinks while I park the car. Don’t mention the m-word. Just see what you can gel on your own.”
When I walked into Cremona, two perfectly chilled glasses of chardonnay were waiting. She had not even been carded.
A month later, I asked her about the rumors I had heard of wild parties in hotels after big school events like prom, and that some parents actually rented these hotel rooms for their teens.
Dun, she said. Parents don’t have to-we can rent our own hotel rooms. So on a Friday night at the Doubletree Hotel, Lincoln Center, my scrubbed, blue jean-clad “baby” stood with her 15-year-old boyfriend in the lobby, trying to gel a hotel room, while I sat anxiously in the car.
They had no credit cards, no luggage, not even a purse. They asked the clerk for a room with a king-size bed; the clerk did not ask for identification or proof of age. He explained that the room was $84 with a credit card or check; paying cash required a deposit for the room. So her friend plunked down $114.92, and the clerk handed him the key. He also gave them two breakfast coupons and a bag of warm chocolate chip cookies. Watch out, he warned, the chocolate gets a bit gooey.
I wanted to go home, lock my daughter in her room and station a pit bull in front of her door.
Even though hotel personnel at most Dallas hotels, including the Doubletree, deny they rent rooms to teens younger than 18, it happens. (Doubletree management did not return phone calls.)
Shocked, I had to admit that, despite their parents’ wishes, teenagers can do just about anything they want in Dallas.
And they do. They’ve got cars, they’ve got money, they can party and raise hell ’till the wee hours with no adults-or worse, oblivious adults-to supervise them,
For this story, D Magazine talked to 35 teens, more than 30 parents, as well as counselors and other experts. We found out that, chaperoned or unchaperoned, teens are playing with dangerous toys at a time when the stakes are higher and deadlier than ever.
Drug and alcohol counselors say our kids are poisoning themselves with near-lethal amounts of alcohol and drinking at early ages-like fourth grade. More than 95 percent of senior teens nationwide say they have consumed alcohol. Some are ingesting dangerous combinations of over-the-counter pain medications and swishing them down with booze. Inhalant abuse of common products like cooking spray, oven cleaner and correction fluid has increased 200 percent since 1995. Drug use among teens has doubled since 1987, and drugs today are many times more potent than those of yesteryear: If we got high, today’s kids are in Mach One. Today’s improved hybrid pot is 275 percent more potent than it was in the Woodstock era and contains 12 percent to 17 percent THC (the psychotropic substance in marijuana). Drug dealers have also become highly creative; marijuana joints may now be dusted with crack cocaine.
“These are not the kids you’d think of as druggies. These are smart kids, athletes, great kids,” says Dianne Alexander, a Dallas family therapist who deals with teen issues such as substance abuse and eating disorders. “Sixth-graders tell me they can put their hands on marijuana in 15 minutes.”
Heroin now is as available to our kids as marijuana once was to boomers. “A year ago, we had one teen who was taking heroin come through our offices,” says Lois Thomson-Bowersock, a chemical-dependency counselor with Tarrant Community Out-reach’s outpatient counseling center. “Seeing a child addicted to heroin is extremely common now.” One Dallas counselor says she cried for three weeks straight, the three weeks that she kept getting one more teenage patient each day who was hooked on heroin.
IFS PEER PRESSURE, STUPID
OVER LUNCH OR COFFEE, THEY TELL THEIR DRINKING STORIES WITH the pride usually reserved for women comparing tales of childbirth: Seniors from various public and private high schools in the city talking about an American rite of passage-the first time they got really drunk.
These are great kids, the kind you’d brag about in family Christmas letters. All are enrolled in top colleges: Duke, Harvard, St. Mary’s, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, UT. All are top athletes, with brains and big hearts. And all of them drink just about every weekend:
J.T. (male): “I think my parents know I drink a little, but they don’t know how much. It was my sophomore year. I had 18 shots of Jim Beam. Maybe more. God, was I sick. I must have puked in my room all night but cleaned it up before my parents ever knew.”
A.R. (male): “We went to a girl’s house; she was a senior at one of the girls schools. Her parents were out of town. I was a sophomore. There were about four or five kids, but we kept things under control. I just got so stoned drunk, I spent the night.”
P.R. (male): “My friend and I got drunk, sophomore year, and we went outside and just started walking around. We live near Hillcrest and Frankford. My friend, he just kept walking-it was like neither one of us knew where we were or what we were doing. I actually found my way back home, but my friend ended up near Coit and Park in Plano! He called his dad at 6 a.m. to pick him up.”
M.W. (female): “It was on a foreign study program, between freshman and sophomore year. I drank exotic liquors. I didn’t get sick, which was a miracle, but I felt pretty rotten the next day.”
“We’re smart kids,” says a senior girl on her way to a prestigious university. “We aren’t going to do anything stupid like drink and drive. But it’s stupid to think kids will not drink.”
Parents, they say, have no influence over their decision to drink. Of the teens interviewed for this article, many have parents who do not drink or who drink moderately.
“It’s not what your parents do; it’s what your friends do,” says R.B. “You do it to be with them. My dad has a beer, like, once a year.”
His parents, he says, warn him to use good judgment. To R.B., good judgment means not overdoing his drinking and not driving while under the influence. His biggest concern is not alcoholism, car wrecks or death: It’s getting caught by the police.
’’Once I was stopped by the Dallas cops after I’d had, like, four beers,” he says. “I was so scared, but it was kind of good because I was very careful. They didn’t suspect a thing.”
Says another girl, to the laughing delight of her friends, “If I end up with an alcohol problem, I’ll just call Charter.”
TEXAS LEADS THE NATION IN THE NUMBER OF DRUNK-DRI-ving related deaths of teens. Car wreck fatality statistics in Texas should make parents shudder. Half or more of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related during prime teen and young adult play times: 671 in the state during the four weeks of prom, 591 during the three weeks around graduation, and 1,156 during the spring break of 1995. Every year, say Dallas police, parents will lose kids in a prom or graduation party-related car wreck.
Party time can be in a hotel room, a private home, a ranch or just out in a field, if kids can still find one. Too much heat from the police? Let the kids go to Cancun to celebrate graduation.
Experts say fewer parents are enforcing curfews on their kids despite the city’s legislated deadlines. Mix later hours and substance abuse with the violence kids have seen on television and in the movies and you get volatility-date abuse, date rape, more violent and abusive behavior at parties.
“We’re seeing more physical and verba! abuse between girls and guys-slapping each other, calling each other names. It’s seen as a rite of passage,” says Marilyn Wright, counselor and director of the special education department at Highland Park High School.
High school kids are experimenting with alcohol, sex and drugs the way baby boomers experimented in college. Middle school students now are doing the equivalent of what boomers did in high school; school counselors say most teens start drinking or using drugs before they even get to high school.
To prove it, Jesuit Preparatory School took an anonymous poll to find out what its students were realty doing. What was found was close to the national norm, says George Coelen, a Jesuit counselor for 10th-grade students: As many as a third of freshmen had used drugs and alcohol before getting to Jesuit. A driver’s license, says Coelen, gives teens freedom and access to non-supervised environments. So you have kids experimenting with alcohol and drugs before they’ve even taken driver’s education. Which is why kids say 10th grade is the major lush year for those who have already been experimenting.
“By the end of sophomore year.” says Coelen, “your kids have made a decision as to when, where, what and how much they will drink.”
The urge to drink and party peaks by the fall of junior year- just in time for homecoming. Then some kids settle down, start thinking about college applications; they may discover that drunken stupors and hangovers are not that glamorous. For those who survive and don’t develop an addiction, by senior year drinking actually ebbs for many teens to a more controlled pace.
“We get kind of tired now,” says a Dallas Public Schools senior. “We like to hang around just one house a night and stick to beer. I’ve pretty much given up hard liquor.”
By the ripe old age of 18. many Dallas children are already members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sources at Dallas chapters say they are seeing teens from everywhere-including many undergraduates from Highland Park High School-who are celebrating four years of sobriety. Kind of mixed news: the good, say counselors, is that more kids are in alcohol recovery now than in years past. But it is rather sad to think of a 16-year-old who has already bottomed out. Thank God. say parents, it’s not my child.
But it just might be.
ON FEB. 9 AT ABOUT 2 A.M., THE NIGHT MANAGER OF THE Best Western Inn at LBJ Freeway and Preston Road, called Dallas police. A party was out of control. When police officers arrived, they found about 40 cars parked outside the hotel. Music blared from a couple of rooms as 100 young, lithe bodies ranging in age from 14 to 17 from various private and public high schools moved about the halls and two motel rooms through wide-open doors. They were laughing, they were smoking, they were binge-drinking: beer, wine, whiskey, tequila. Every comer was occupied by a writhing couple “mugging down”; most of them were clearly too wasted to think about the safe-sex lecture they’d heard the past semester. Many couldn’t even make it to the bathroom. By 2 a.m., the beds and carpets were filthy from vomit and urine.
As the liquid refreshments waned, so did the guests, who got into their cars feigning sobriety and drove home. Others were too drunk to drive, so they stayed behind and began throwing around beer bottles, waking up sleeping guests in other rooms, pounding the walls and then each other. The night manager finally called police. Disgusted, the police rounded up the teens, told the sober ones to get into their cars, and look the rest home. Just another Saturday night teen party in North Dallas.
Police say parties like these are common on any weekend following a large school event, public or private: prom, homecoming, winter formal, Sadie Hawkins. Junior Symphony Ball. Parents, teachers and police try their darnedest to keep school functions alcohol- and drug-free. Arlington will administer a controversial alcohol test at the prom this year for the first time after adults served minors alcohol at several pre-prom parties last year, and after one notorious post-football game party last fall during which a 16-year-old girl was assaulted.
The problem is. say police, the kids aren’t drinking and living it up at school functions. The trouble comes before-or after-at the private parties, at a hotel or a friend’s housed
Teens feel little guilt consuming alcohol or, in some cases, smoking marijuana, because, they say, their parents did the very same thing when they were young. But the stakes now are higher, say experts. Teens are using drugs and alcohol so much earlier it may be developmentally damaging. There are more choices in drugs and stronger doses available. And more dangers. This is not good news for teens, who leam valuable life lessons by experimentation and trial and error.
“Our kids don’t have the luxury of making mistakes as we did,” says Lois Thomson-Bowersock. ’Two beers at a party or venereal disease did not ruin our lives. But our kids live in a culture where serious drugs are extremely available, confrontations can involve gunfire and a single sexual encounter could lead to AIDS.”
Rohypnol, the date-rape pill known as “Roofies,” can be slipped into a girl’s drink at a party and she will pass out, never know whether she’s had sexual intercourse, with whom or how many times. There were reports of Rohypnol rapes in North Dallas last spring and this winter.
Dallas police who are called in to quell out-of-control parties report a high incidence of pass-around sex, where one girl may have sex with several boys. When everyone is drunk, they say, it’s hard to tell whether sex is consensual or forced. One University Park father who recently broke up a Friday night party at a neighbor’s house was alarmed to find a disproportionate ratio of boys to girls-10 to 1-before he sent everyone home.
THEY’RE JUST ’HAVING FUN’-NOT DOING DRUGS
’THE LAW MAKES IT CLEAR THAT DRUGS ARE ILLEGAL,” SAYS DR. Lynn Hale, superintendent of the Arlington school district, who’s had her hands full since the district tried to crack down on teen drinking before last year’s prom. “Drinking under the age of 21 is also illegal. But the laws are less punitive for alcohol consumption by minors.”
Some parents, says Hale, think that if their child is using alcohol it’s a lesser problem than using drugs. Or they think that kids are going to drink anyhow, so why not give them a protected environment-designated driver, limo, a home, a hotel roonv-where they can experiment with liquor safely without getting huit?
’’The big problem is with the parents,” says Dr. Jeffrey T. Baldridge, a Dallas clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescent issues. “There’s a difference of opinion about whether alcohol is OK or not for kids to consume despite the law.”
Some say parents are reliving their own wild teen years. Or they cannot control their kid’s drinking because they cannot control their own, says John Boop, a spokesman for the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Others think parents are wimps.
“We have a world of adolescent parents,” says Dianne Alexander. “Parents are scared to be parents, they so desperately want to be popular with their kids. They can’t say no.”
Last spring, a North Dallas couple came home to find about S18.000 in damage done to their home; doors broken in, windows smashed, china cabinet overturned, shattered glass, plants and lawn furniture thrown into the pool, even damage to the cars. Their son, a senior, had had a parly.
Word of teen parties spreads like sexually transmitted diseases: Tell one, you’ve told a hundred. Once the word got out that there was a party with a couple of kegs, teens from almost every school in North Dallas began appearing. When a few boys started lighting, a girl was hit in the face with either a brick or a baseball bat. Her friends took her to the hospital, where she got 30 stitches in her face. Rumors spread and a few boys went back to the house-to “get” the guy who hit the girl. In the madness, one boy who was just arriving was jumped by two teens who kicked him. yelling, “What school do you go to?” and “Why’d you hit the girl?”
More than just furniture and Lalique crystal were damaged at this party; it caused a rift between classmates and bitter feelings among parents. Some parents whose children attended the party say the three boys who were arrested and charged with felonies (later dropped) were not the guilty ones; they took the blame for friends who either lied to their parents or whose parents lied to keep their kids out of trouble. None of their friends stuck up for them. Others say they got what they deserved but wondered why the homeowner did not hold his son more responsible.
It was a brutal lesson for young kids to learn, says one father; they also learned how one brush with the law can impact their lives forever-all because of a party.
Sometimes the parents themselves suffer consequences. Last spring, Dallas police arrested Dr. JoAna Sanchez, parent of a Greenhill School student, for serving alcohol to minors at her son’s graduation party. One of the arresting officers said the party was clearly out of control with inebriated teens as young as 13. A high school student who was at the party shortly before the bust says things were not out of hand: Sanchez had collected everyone’s car keys to keep them safe.
Most private school administrators don’t like to talk about drug or alcohol problems outside of school, fearing their school will be labeled the drunk or druggie school. But Dr. Sanchez’s arrest forced Greenhill to talk.
Tackling the smear on his school’s name, Greenhill’s headmaster, Peter Briggs, and members of the parent’s association bravely initiated a face-saving parent contract; If signed, parents agreed to chaperon and not serve liquor at any non-school teen parties.
“I’ve told my parents, if I hear they have served my students liquor, I’ll put their name up in bright lights on a billboard,” says Father Sieve Swann of the Episcopal School of Dallas. “To embarrass them.”
Even if parents don’t provide the liquor and the location, teens find a way. They prefer parties in private homes when patenta are out of town, or in a field. Upper classmen hand down information about secret drinking places, and advice, such as where to make a fake novelty ID (a copy store like Kinko’s or Copycats), where to buy kegs and liquor (anywhere) and how to get a drink al Starplex (use fake ID or get someone older to buy it for you). Buying liquor, say teens, is so easy many cannot believe a drinking age even exists.
The Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission reports about a 30 percent non-compliance rate among Dallas stores, bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol. In other words, of all the licensed stores in the city, 70 percent don’t sell liquor to minors.
That’s a joke to teens.
“One guy told us to come back when the state dudes had disappeared,” says a senior. “I mean, that’s how they gel their money. From us.”
Teens avoid the large liquor store chains and head for the small mom-and-pop stores. Often, the immigrant employees don’t even understand English. “The guy asks for an ID, and we give him a [fake] one that says, like, ’duplicate’ on the back.” says a junior boy. “Either he does not turn it over or we tell him it’s official, supposed to be that way. He doesn’t know any better.”
Lt. Don Engleking of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission admits that the ability to speak English is not a qualification for getting a license to sell liquor in Texas. He believes most teens get other people to buy their liquor. Teens disagree.
“It’s dorky to ask someone else to buy for you,” says a North Dallas teen. “’Maybe, like, the first time. Mostly we get to know the clerks and pretty soon if they recognize you, they don’t even ask for an ID.”
The reality, argue some parents, is that kids-good kids, our kids-are always going to party and drink. Maybe so, says Darrell Fant, the director of public safety for Highland Park who confessed that he, too. drank as a teenager in a tiny Texas town. But we can make it harder for them to drink, impossible for them to drive. Chief Fant says he’s seeing more support, compliance and concern among parents. But police and counselors say it will lake more than an accident or classmate’s death to keep teenagers away from alcohol, because teens think they’re invincible.
“This is a community problem,” says Dr. Lynn Hale. “We can address it. I’m not going to take the stance that you can’t do anything about it. 1 think if you set your expectations high, the kids will live up to them.”
Although her plan to kick alcohol offenders off sports teams and out of school activities was booed by some parents and quashed by the courts. Dr. Hale says principals saw a reduction in alcohol problems at extracurricular school activities after the policy was implemented. Greenhill recently adopted a pledge policy for student athletes in seventh grade and up: No alcohol, tobacco or drugs while they’re on the team. A few students have tested the waters, says headmaster Briggs, and disciplinary action has been taken. Similar policies exist at Hockaday and St. Mark’s School. Many private schools have adopted education programs aimed at students and parents.
Tougher laws may at least give parents an opportunity to talk to their teens on the subject. Austin is slowly lowering the boom: At least seven bills have been filed in the state Legislature in response to teen drinking and hotel parties. Lawmakers say they want to gel tough not to make criminals out of kids who make one mistake, but to get them where it hurts-suspend their driving privileges.
Critics say it’s about time. Congress forced states to lower the allowable blood alcohol content for minors to below .02 or risk losing federal highway funds. Al least 38 states have passed “zero tolerance” laws for minors. Currently, a youth younger than age 21 in Texas is not considered driving-impaired until blood alcohol content reaches .07. So yes, it’s illegal to drink but you can’t get caught until you’re good and drunk.
Until now. the penalty for teens who were caught with blood alcohol levels higher than .10 was not even a slap on the wrist for the first and second violations. All that will change if the new law, which has cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, passes. Using graduated penalties. Texas will crack down on underage drinkers with license suspension for 120 to 180 days, higher fines, alcohol education and jail time, Even drunk kids who are not driving can risk losing their drivers licenses.
HOW TO BE CLUED IN TO YOUR TEEN
Though it is natural for teens to buck against boundaries. counselors say they need them, especially where alcohol is concerned. Their advice: Take alcohol use seriously.
●Talk about alcohol and other drugs in your family and express your opinion. Start early, says John Boop of the Betty Ford Center-like in second grade.
●Set clear, non-negotiable limits regarding alcohol and drug use for your children. Then stick to them.
●Set a good example. You don’t have to become a teetotaler, but lie mindful that actions speak louder than words.
●Communicate with parents of teens who go to your child’s school.
●Watch your child’s money. One Park Cities boy had an allowance of $1,500 a month-no wonder he could afford the drugs he was buying. Watch, too. that your child isn’t suddenly passing around big bucks that didn’t come from you or a job. He or she could be dealing.
Every family is unique, but counselors advise against leaving teens alone when parents go out of town for the weekend. Not a great idea to lei them have buddies over when you’re not at home, either, If you do, lock up the liquor.
●Plan for contingencies. “Peer pressure is an awesome thing,” says Dr. Cheryl Hughes, achild and adolescent psychologist at Children’s Medical Center who is affiliated with the Episcopal School of Dallas, “Teen years are a lime for experimentation. Chances are. your kid will want to attend one of these parties.”
Your first concern, says Hughes, should always be your child’s safety. She advocates a contract with your child at age 13, Agreed: If they ever find the mselves at aplace where things are out of control, (hey call you and you go get ’em- no questions asked. No quizzing, no grilling.
Next, encourage family members to stay in touch whenever someone leaves the house. Start this early, too. The family rule should be to know where everyone is going, with whom and what lime they’ll be back. This applies to parents as well as children, says Hughes.
●Do a little role-playing. Ask questions like “What if you were babysitting and 10 of your friends showed up with liquor?”
“Role-play your worst nightmares.” says Hughes. “It’s easier to have rules and gradually let up than it is to rope them in after they’ve been running amok.”
●Call ahead before a party or casual gathering to see if a parent will be around and ask if alcohol will be serve
●Clue in to mood swings or changes in temperament that may indicate your child is using alcohol or drugs. Experts say it is hard to spot erratic behavior in a teen because part of being a teen is being erratic. Seek guidance from alcohol and drug counselors if necessary to determine if your child is abusing substance
Parents look to the school for help and guidance. The schools look to teens themselves for ideas. One solution public and private schools are initiating: have popular seniors who do not drink talk to younger students to tell them substance abuse is not cool.
“’Attack the stereotype that all teens drink.” says Jesuit *s Father Deutsch. “Then you help the problem.”
Parents who have been through the wringer with teenage children say it would be helpful if private schools in Dallas collaborated on zero-tolerance policies, because many out-of-control parties include students from many schools.
While they can provide stellar programs, one thing schools cannot do is follow children home at night and on weekends.
“You want to trust your children because they are going to be making decisions very soon without us,” says one parent. “But so much is beyond their control. 1 would say we need just about all the help we can get.’”