Pre-prom alcohol education

Alcoholic containers and paraphernalia rest on a table as drug and alcohol expert Mike Gimbel stands before a group of seniors during a mandatory pre-prom discussion about alcohol consumption at Maryvale Preparatory School. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / May 16, 2012)

They have asked a date, found the perfect dress, matched the shoes and made the appointments for hair and nails. But the seniors and their parents at Maryvale Preparatory School must add one more thing to their to-do list before prom night Friday.

The all-girls Catholic school in Brooklandville established an unusual pre-prom tradition 26 years ago, when it made an alcohol education program mandatory for students and parents.

"Because of all the things going on related to drinking, including a horrific accident, we decided then that we had to do something," said Sister Shawn Marie Maguire, who has overseen the school since 1981. "We knew we could not do it alone. We needed the parents involved."

Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' Hall of Famer, was a parent at that time and funded the first effort, she said. Maryvale was the first local school to institute a program to raise awareness about underage drinking, although others have followed its lead.

Michael Gimbel, a substance abuse counselor based at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, called the school's policy "a cool and a bold move." He presents the dangers of teenage drinking with props like beer goggles, statistics on alcohol poisoning deaths on college campuses and personal insight.

"The most important part of my resume is that I am a recovering alcoholic who has been clean for nearly 40 years," he said.

He opened the talk to 67 seniors last Thursday, standing before a table filled with bottles and cans of beer, liquor and alcohol-laced energy drinks.

"The amazing thing is most of this came out of somebody's car," he said.

He was not amazed by the response when he asked how many students knew someone who drinks too much. Nearly every hand went up.

"I think every one of us knows somebody," said Michelle Fraling, who is planning to attend Cornell University in the fall. "He made sure we understood the implications of that."

Teens are particularly vulnerable to alcohol, Gimbel said. They don't drink as often as adults, but, when they do, they tend to drink more, he said. Of the 22 million alcoholics in the U.S., a quarter are in their teens, he said.

Senior Meghan Hildreth, who has played basketball since she was 3, tried on the beer goggles that simulate alcohol impairment and found her skills lacking.

"I could not see exactly where the basket was," she said. "I kept shooting to the left."

With a detailed diagram, Gimbel demonstrated how quickly alcohol can flood the brain, relax inhibitions and impair judgment.

"The presentation is really good visually," said senior Molly Henderson. "He spoke to us at our level but did not talk down to us. He showed us what a big impact even a few drinks can have. This is not just about prom. It sends us off to college with a strong message."

Paula Henderson, Molly's mother, joined other parents for an adult version of the presentation last Thursday evening. It was the second time she had heard Gimbel, but "That's OK," she said. "Everyone needs reminding."

While the information, statistics and anecdotes can be alarming, she said, parents need to hear his message.

"He addressed the prom as the immediate event," she said. "But he also gave us information on senior week, which all the girls are planning, and the college experience. The bottom line is that parents are really glad the school does this."

Maguire usually leaves the room when Gimbel speaks to students, but she stays with the parents, who have accepted the program and understand its significance, she said.

Making an evening meeting mandatory might inconvenience some parents, but it also "sends the message how important this program is," said Paul Schiminger, whose daughter, Lauren, attends the school. He called the subject eye-opening, particularly Gimbel's long list of products available to teens and his statistics on alcohol abuse on college campuses.

"First and foremost, this is about keeping youth safe at proms," he said. "We trust our daughters to make good decisions and this program helps make them aware of what is out there."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts