In the shadow of tragedy, principals battle underage drinking

Kate Ryan,

WASHINGTON – While some kids may be getting mixed messages about the dangers of underage drinking at home, area officials and educators want to ensure the right message is communicated loud and clear.

A Frederick County judge sitting in on a case in Rockville, Md. touched on the issue Thursday as she sentenced 20-year-old Kevin Coffay for the deaths of three friends, which happened after they’d all attended parties where alcohol was served.

The judge noted that parents sometimes seem to “empower” kids to drink, believing they can keep their children safe by allowing them to drink at parties at home.

At Walt Whitman High School in Rockville, Principal Alan Goodwin says he tries to communicate clearly to students: Underage drinking is not legal, and it will result in some kind of disciplinary measure.

“If my students are cited for drinking, I try to have them suffer some consequence,” he says.

For example, after as many as 35 students were cited for alcohol possession at an off-campus party last month, Goodwin learned the identities of a number of them and suspended some from extracurricular activities. But Goodwin says it’s not about the discipline.

“I love my students, they know that, and I’ve tried different ways to keep them safe,” he says.

And how do parents feel? Goodwin says reactions can be mixed.

“The parent will support a rule until it affects their own child, and then they don’t want to support it,” he says.

Still, he says most parents do.

“Parents, I think, are almost at their wits’ end,” Goodwin says. “They try to exercise vigilance over their children, and children still manage to make bad decisions.”

Some of those decisions have been on display during Montgomery County’s holiday drunken driving enforcement period, which runs through Saturday. Montgomery County police responded to 22 complaints about parties involving underage drinking, Capt. Thomas Didone says.

Police also issued 239 citations of alcohol possession by minors, and arrested six drivers who were underage and had been drinking.

Didone says he’s pleased that in two recent cases, judges in Montgomery County issued stiff sentences in drunken driving cases, both of which involved drivers who were responsible for deaths and fled the scene. The most recent was Coffay’s case in Rockville, in which three students that attended Magruder High School were killed.

Eighteen-year-old Haeley Maguire was days away from walking across the stage to collect her diploma. Spencer Datt, 18, and John Hoover, 20, were both Magruder graduates.

“We have an uphill battle and we have to change our strategies,” Magruder principal Lee Evans says of the fight against underage drinking.

Evans says kids need to be told what they should be doing, not just what they shouldn’t do. He says his school is working with the community on ways to provide more activities for kids and to steer them away from experimenting with alcohol.

He also says parents cannot allow kids to drink in their homes.

“We cannot do that,” he says. “It’s a window of vulnerability…and we have to close that window.”

Goodwin also says middle school isn’t too early to talk to kids about making safe decisions. In Loudoun County, a group of six students at J. Michael Lunsford Middle School brought alcohol to the school and drank before classes.

The incident was discovered when one student went to the office complaining of feeling sick. The county sheriff’s office is investigating.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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