A prim suburb rallies to curb teen drinking

With its manicured gardens and homes opulent enough to warrant a visit from Robin Leach and his camera crew, Scarsdale seems like a Rockwellian utopia of protection and privilege. In this Westchester County town, where leaf blowers are banned during certain summer hours and tree pollen powders the SUVs on the streets and driveways, quietude seemingly reigns.

Yet, listen to the talk of the town and you'll hear a lot of unsettled chatter.

Scarsdale has been jolted by several public incidents involving underage drinking within the community and its surrounding county - most notably when an estimated 200 students attended Scarsdale High School's 2002 homecoming dance visibly drunk, many of them as young as 14. By the end of the episode, 11 students had to be taken to a hospital.

The incident, and others like it, have prompted the community here to examine whether Scardale's prim, proper, and preened milieu has some bearing on explaining why so many teens are drinking alcohol.

"In communities like Scarsdale, where from kindergarten parents are planning how to get their kids into an Ivy League college, children feel extremely pressured," says Dr. Gilbert Botvin of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "When you have increased stress, you see an increase in substance abuse, not just alcohol."

Although the worrying extent of Scardale's illicit drinking isn't necessarily unique, perhaps mirroring that of other teens nationwide, the steps local officials are taking to handle the problem are.

At a time when even Congress is contemplating weighing in on the problem of teen drinking through tougher marketing restrictions as well as an increase in excise taxes on alcohol, the county's program to, in essence, take the pulse of local teen pressures, may prove a model for other communities grappling with the issue.

Among the initiatives being undertaken by Westchester County are plans for a county-wide, federally funded survey of adolescents which will help officials devise a public-education campaign to discourage underage drinking. At the town level, the Scarsdale school administration will extend health education to start at sixth grade to warn students about the dangers of alcohol. And it's hoped that a recently passed statewide keg registry law will assist police in tracking the sale of alcohol to minors.

In addition to these initiatives, the Scarsdale police department has designated one of its detectives, Richard Fatigate, as the youth officer who will become a more visible presence in the schools.

"We have stepped up the enforcement aspects and taken what we would consider to be a zero-tolerance view towards the problem," says Lt. Bryant Clark of the Scarsdale police department.

Here, in the mansions just a short jog away from the nation's first parkway, some teens drink during the unsupervised periods, such as the time between the end of school and parents' return from work. Often, though, parental complacence towards underage drinking contributes to the problem. "Parents might see alcohol as a normal right of passage," says Dr. Botvin.

At a recent birthday party in Scarsdale, six recent graduates of Scarsdale High School [which the writer also attended until 2001], attest to that. "I know one of my friend's parents said, 'If you're staying in the house, then I don't have a problem with you drinking.' That's kind of promoting it," says Jennifer, a 17-year-old.

As to why teens turn to alcohol, there's little mystery. "I think there is a big peer pressure thing, that it's the cool thing to do," says Elizabeth, 18. "There are some groups that drink every weekend, and that's what they do for fun." For others, alcohol is seen as a means to relax. "I went to the [cast party for the senior class play] after the show. Most people were not friends with each other and for the first half hour everyone was just sitting there. And finally we were like, 'Okay, let's drink,' " says Jackie, 18.

Westchester's newspapers have chronicled several recent public infractions of drinking laws. Last month, 10 eight graders in Mamaroneck were suspended for drinking at a school dance, and 21 students were arrested for drinking after the prom in Hastings-on-Hudson.

The episodes perhaps reflect the extent of illicit drinking nationwide. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and the Monitoring the Future Study at the University of Michigan, 79.7 percent of 12th graders surveyed in 2001 had imbibed alcohol, and 10.6 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 had engaged in binge drinking in the month prior to the survey.

For its part, Scarsdale's well-to-do high school believes it can do more to curb teen drinking. It will establish an adviser program that will link students with teachers. Plans are in the works for a similar program pairing middle schoolers with high schoolers to ease the transition between the two schools. "That's how you get kids to reflect on their own behavior," says Dr. Michael McGill, superintendent of the Scarsdale school system.

But, for all their efforts, officials say stringent parameters for teenagers should be set at home. "Parents should send a clear message to their kids that this behavior will not be condoned," says Detective Fatigate.

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