Prom Cops: Not Your Garden-Variety Chaperon

Texas takes tougher stance on underage drinking, but some call it an erosion of teen rights

As agents for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Paul Sanchez and Alan Henry spend most Friday nights visiting some of the seediest bars in Greater Dallas - a job they liken to lifting up rocks and watching the bugs scurry out.

But tonight they're parking their unmarked Chevrolet at some of the poshest hotels in Dallas, where their cowboy boots and sidearms look a little out of place. The only resistance they encounter is from a tuxedo-clad teenager who asks, under his breath, "Don't these guys have something better to do than hang around at the prom?"

Here in Texas, and throughout the nation, lawmakers, school officials, parents, and police are pushing efforts to curb underage drinking - especially on prom night. Some schools require partygoers to take Breathalyzer tests. Others invite off-duty cops. And here, under a new statewide program, agents like Mr. Henry and Mr. Sanchez are performing spot checks.

Supporters welcome such tactics as a sign that adults are finally waking up to an ongoing and often deadly problem. To civil libertarians and many students, though, the whole thing smacks of Big Brother. Either way, it's another sign that Americans are retracting some of the freedoms granted to young adults in recent decades.

"The tolerance level has dropped and the kids know it," Sanchez says. "We're writing more citations, and we're being more proactive. We're not going to be able to completely stop underage drinking, but we can definitely slow it down."

Indeed, the problem is pressing here in the nation's second-largest state. Although there is no indication that more underage people are dying in alcohol-related incidents here, Texas continues to lead the nation in this dubious category. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, nearly 11 percent of all drunken drivers involved in fatal accidents in 1995 were under the age of 21.

Toward safer proms

This year, Gov. George W. Bush (R) declared April Alcohol Awareness Month and the Beverage Commission, in conjunction with the Texas Hotel and Motel Association, launched Operation Safeprom. Agents plan to visit 70 percent of this year's proms.

In addition, the Texas Legislature is considering legislation that would dramatically increase the penalties for underage drinking, including fines of up to $500, possible jail time, mandatory suspension of driver's licenses, and participation in an alcohol awareness program.

To many Texans like Tresa Coe, spokeswoman for the Dallas-based group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), these are positive developments. Although studies show that fewer underage people nationwide are dying in alcohol-related incidents, she notes that the population of teenagers is about to boom, and that alcohol is still readily accessible to young buyers. Such highly visible crackdowns, she says, present "a consistent message that underage drinking will not be tolerated."

Yet Jay Jacobson, executive director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, describes such efforts as "borderline totalitarianism." Although Breathalyzers do not legally constitute a search, and recent court rulings have upheld the right of school districts to employ drug tests in extracurricular situations, Mr. Jacobson argues that such measures demean the integrity and judgment of kids - particularly those who've never taken a drink.

"Over the last decade, we've seen a diminution in the rights of young people generally, from drug-sniffing dogs in classrooms to random locker searches," he says. "The message it sends is that 'we're adults, we're in charge, and we can do whatever we please.' "

By all accounts, the problem of underage drinking is not limited to prom night, or even to the actual proms themselves. "After they leave here, they'll go to private parties and that's scary," says Gwen Nicholson, a parent chaperon at the Richardson High prom Friday night. "The limos will be gone and they'll be riding in their own cars. I don't think there's anything we can do about that."

On the beat

Already this spring, Henry has visited more than 50 proms. At 90 percent of these events, he says, school officials have the situation under control. Teachers, parents, and off-duty police officers scour the scene, often in conjunction with hotel personnel. Some schools provide dinner at the event and forbid students from leaving the party and coming back.

So far, the only tickets he's issued were to a group of teens in a beer-laden limousine on their way to a party the night before the actual prom.

Some promgoers resent the presence of extra badges. At the Samuel High prom at the Cityplace Hotel in Dallas last Friday, Danita Oliver expressed her displeasure at the presence of the "beer police."

"I feel I should be trusted on my prom night," she says. "I have my parents at home to tell me what to do and to tell me not to drink." The presence of the Beverage Commission agents, she says, "makes me feel like I need to be watched, but I don't."

Nevertheless, Henry and Sanchez say most students are either appreciative, or indifferent to their presence. If students aren't doing anything wrong, they say, they shouldn't be concerned by the extra supervision. If the program prevents one student from drinking and driving, they add, it's worth the effort.

"I'm not unhappy about it at all. They're just looking out for us," says Kimberley Ervin, a Samuel senior in a sheer blue dress who's casting an impatient glance toward the DJ. "I just wish they'd play some more music."

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