Liquor-Free Grad Parties Catch on in US

HOPING to curb alcohol and drug use, hundreds of high schools and parent groups across the country are staging often-elaborate all-night parties for graduating seniors as alternatives to the usual student revelry. The move is an outgrowth of the burgeoning nationwide concern over drunk driving and substance abuse among teenagers.

While a number of communities have long put on teetotaling graduation and prom parties, the trend has grown dramatically in recent years - as have the number of students attending them:

Some 80 percent of the 500 graduates at University High School in Irvine, Calif., attended an all-night party on campus this week. The $28,000 bash included limbo contests, talent shows, and a buffet of food as long as a commencement address.

Shortly after doffing their caps and gowns Wednesday night, more than 100 of the 127 seniors graduating from the high school in Weston, Conn., boarded a bus for New York City, where they took a midnight-to-sunrise cruise around Manhattan harbor.

Seniors at 30 public and private schools in Fairfax, Va., participated in parent-sponsored parties last week in which microwaves, refrigerators, scholarships, and two cars were given away.

``Everybody has suddenly jumped on the bandwagon,'' says Mike Lundquist of the California Highway Patrol.

Keeping teenagers amused, sober, and off the streets has been a goal of communities almost since the days of desks with inkwells. A few towns in Oregon began putting on alcohol-free graduation parties 40 years ago. Parents in San Marino, Calif., have been doing it since the 1960s.

Yet it is only in the past few years that the phenomenon has really caught on. This year parents at 33 high schools in southern California's Orange County sponsored ``grad-night'' parties - up from four in 1986.

Seniors at 62 schools in Connecticut have attended boozeless festivities in recent weeks, while dozens more were held in the Chicago area.

In 1987, 3,260 youths between the ages of 15 and 19 died in alcohol-related accidents nationwide. But there are other reasons for the rise of ``safe and sober'' parties as well.

In many communities they are the last chance for seniors to get together before trotting off to summer jobs and college.

For parents, who plan most of them, the parties are a way to get involved with the community and school.

``When you host one of these, it sends a message to the kids that you care about them,'' says Roberta Dieter, a parent involved in the Irvine celebration.

The parties can be elaborate, which is perhaps understandable given the temptations organizers have to compete with. Some communities in Orange County now put well over $50,000 into their grad-night bashes.

At Irvine's University High School, work on the 20,000 square feet of cruise ships, volcanos, palm trees, and other decorations has been going on since February.

A number of communities, like Weston, prefer all-night cruises, while others rent out health clubs or amusement parks. Local businesses often donate money and prizes for the parties but students do fundraising, too.

Chaperones usually check for alcohol at the door and don't allow students to come back into a party once they have left. This prevents them from imbibing in the parking lot and returning inebriated.

Despite all the effort, however, there is nothing to prevent graduates from holding their own, less puritan parties the next night. Nor are all the celebrations well attended and successful.

Earlier this week, organizers of a grad-night party in Portsmouth, N.H., cut short the outing after police found marijuana, cocaine, beer, and whiskey on several of the buses taking kids to the planned activities.

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