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Originally published Monday, April 18, 2011 at 10:45 AM

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Prom season poses challenges on underage drinking

Wailing friends collapse at the burnished coffin of a teen as pallbearers slowly wheel it away. Two crashed cars sit nearby, bearing witness in pools of blood to the drunken driving accident that took his life.

Associated Press

Wailing friends collapse at the burnished coffin of a teen as pallbearers slowly wheel it away. Two crashed cars sit nearby, bearing witness in pools of blood to the drunken driving accident that took his life.

The scene isn't real. It was a simulation called "Cheat the Reaper: Live to See Your Future," staged in the parking lot of Miami Beach Senior High School last year with help from students and adults desperate to end drinking and drugging during prom season.

The mock tragedy, like others at high schools around the country, will play out again this year in Miami Beach with help from Drug Free Youth in Town, one of many groups kicking into high gear as the "killing season" approaches.

The message? "We reiterate the fact - don't let prom be your last dance," said Adrian Lopez, director of community outreach for the nonprofit, which works with dozens of south Florida middle and high schools to deter underage drinking.

Prom season begins in mid-April and typically touches off spikes in alcohol-related traffic accidents involving young people. Year-round, the number of 15- to 20-year-old drivers who had blood alcohol concentrations of .01 or higher when involved in fatal crashes dropped 37 percent from 2000 to 2009, but alcohol-fueled road accidents remain the leading cause of death in that age range, according to national data.

Research from the insurance industry, The Partnership at Drugfree.org (formerly The Partnership for a Drug-Free America), and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) shows 70 percent of high school juniors and seniors expect their peers to drink and drive on prom night.

Countering peer pressure to drink - or perceived pressure - coupled with parent and child education, awareness, seat belt use and the fact that staying sober is actually perceived as cool by teens in many areas have all contributed to the overall decline, advocates said.

But prom season remains a fragile time, especially since it signals the start of "senior slump." It's the time of year when departing high schoolers start to feel liberated from school and home as they wind down from academics and the pressures of the college application mill and head into graduation and summer party mode.

At prom, schools rely on random breath alcohol testing, lockdowns of hotel and school venues (once you're out, you're out), bloody mock DUI scenes and even drug-sniffing dogs to ensure that dances and other chaperoned events are safe. But what about unsupervised after-parties that leave underage drinkers hung over and hotel rooms strewn with empty liquor bottles the next morning?

"It happens at all the schools around here. Some of these students are first-time drinkers. Others are professionals. They drink until they pass out, basically," said Chris Valdes, who graduated from Felix Varela Senior High School in Kendall, Fla., in 2009.

Jessica Roscoe graduated high school in tiny New Rockford, N.D., last year, skipping all opportunities to drink as Valdes did, but the reality for some of her peers was different once the "official" parties were over.

"As soon as 3:30 rolls around everybody leaves. That's when they pack up and go to the real party," she said. "Coming from small-town North Dakota, drinking is just kind of accepted into our way of life. It's sad and it's true. Parents know that drinking is going on and they just let it happen."

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Lopez's partner schools in the Drug Free Youth in Town effort mail postcards to parents urging them to do commonsense things like stay connected with their kids throughout prom night, know who they're with, know how to contact other parents in the group and stay up until their kids get home.

But No. 6 on the card reads: "If you are hosting a prom after party, DO NOT SERVE ALCOHOL. It is illegal for adults to serve alcohol to minors."

Many states impose legal liability of varying degrees on such "social hosts" who furnish alcohol to minors as intolerance to drunken driving has generally gained ground. But prom, to some parents, seems worth the risk if it keeps their kids home and off the roads.

"Most parents do not keep parties dry. More often than not, I've run into 'don't ask, don't tell' situations, where parents stay upstairs, out of the fray," said John G. Duffy, a clinical psychologist who has worked with high schoolers for 15 years in the Chicago area.

Some parents who remember drinking as a rite of passage at their own proms let their kids take hotel rooms unsupervised or believe it best to host after-parties at home and ignore what goes on, Lopez said, and they are precisely the people that he and other coalitions want to reach.

But the problem, for parents and their kids, runs deeper than just one night, Duffy said.

"My teenage clients typically resent these restrictions, feeling that they are not being treated as young adults, but more like children," he said. "Many think that school administrations should accept the fact that teens will be drinking on prom nights. And therein lies the issue."

While some school administrators have turned over prom to parent groups or community organizations altogether to avoid legal risks, others believe prom safety has greatly improved over the last few decades.

"For the first 15 years of my career, proms were something I dreaded, and for the last 15 years I looked forward to it," said Mel Riddile, a former principal in Fairfax County, Va., schools and now associate director of high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"Principals want all the help they can get on this," Riddile said. Whether it's at the dance or after, he said, "Visibility is the best thing, if kids know you're going to be there."

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