No one really knows how many kids were drunk at Free State High School's big Firestarter Dance last month.
Some students have said as many as two-thirds of the 500-plus students had been drinking. It's ridiculous, they say, that only three were caught.
Others say another three or four students may have escaped detection. Still, that's not a lot.
This debate, said Diane Ash, is as inevitable as it is futile.
"You can't go back and look. It's over. Perceptions are going to differ," she said. "The more important thing is: Where do we go from here? What should we be doing to keep our young people safe?"
Surveys, Ash said, have repeatedly shown that Lawrence high school seniors drink more than their peers.
"When last year's seniors were asked if they had consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in a single sitting at least once within the previous two weeks, 42.9 percent said yes. The state average was 36.6 percent," said Ash, who oversees drug and alcohol prevention efforts within the district.
"I just got in the raw data for 2005, and the 42.9 percent figure looks like it's down to 42.2 percent," Ash said. "At least it didn't go up."
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Ash said she wasn't sure why Lawrence teens appear to be consuming more alcohol - beer and wine coolers, mostly - than their peers.
But Lawrence's being a university town, she said, is probably a factor.
"The stuff is easy to get here," she said, noting that students who drink say they have little trouble getting their college-age brothers, sisters, cousins or friends to buy them alcohol.
They also report success in raiding their parents' liquor cabinets and the beer-filled refrigerators in the garage.
"Sometimes the parents know, sometimes they don't," Ash said.
Ash and others defended plans to begin testing students for alcohol before dances at Free State and Lawrence High schools.
"The schools are doing their part," said Charlie Kuszmaul, program coordinator for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center's WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) program, which has counselors stationed in each of the district's junior high and high schools.
"But keeping kids from drinking at the dances doesn't mean they're going to stop drinking," Kuszmaul said. "It just means they won't go to the dance, or they'll wait until after the dance."
Mike Hill, an assistant principal at Free State High School, agreed. "The issue here is bigger that drinking at dances," he said. "And it's bigger than what goes on at school. This is a community issue that has to involve parents."
Tips for parents
Knowing that parenting isn't easy, school and mental health officials, offered a few suggestions for parents steering their children from underage drinking: ¢ Talk to your kids "not one time but many times" about your expectations, said Charlie Kuszmaul, program coordinator for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center's WRAP program. Establish a clear set of consequences for when expectations aren't met. Be sure the consequences are reasonable and realistic. Don't say you'll take away their driving privileges for six months if there's no other way to get them where they need to be. "What I tell parents to do is to say, 'Look, I've got things you want, and you've got things I want. Let's trade,'" Kuszmaul said. He added, "Give them room, but give them consequences, too." ¢ If your son or daughter has a cell phone, have them call you when they get to the dance and when they leave. "A parent knows their kid's voice," Kuszmaul said. "You should be able to tell if they've been drinking." ¢ Let your children know you'll be waiting up for them and that they're to come see you when they get home. If you can't stay awake that late, set the alarm or shorten the curfew. "If a kid knows his parents are waiting up for him, he's a lot less likely to come home drunk," Kuszmaul said. ¢ Tell your high-school seniors to be home by midnight. "I don't care if you're a senior in Lawrence or Salina or New York City, nothing good happens after midnight," said Lawrence High School Assistant Principal Matt Brungardt. "It just doesn't." Ash added that Lawrence has a curfew for students younger than 18: 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The high school dances end at 11 p.m. ¢ Set it up so your son or daughter can let you know - by sending a text message, perhaps - to call them when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. "That way, when you call, they can tell their friends 'That was my parents. Something's come up, I have to go home now,'" Brungardt said. "It gives them an out." ¢ Don't confuse spying with enlightenment. Go to the dance. See for yourself. "Oh, absolutely. We welcome parent participation," said Mike Hill, assistant principal at Free State High. "By all means come, please."