Officially, the legal drinking age in Maryland is 21. But in reality, it's anything you can get away with. It's worrisome enough when teen-agers get alcohol from a teetering liquor store customer who agrees to buy them a bottle -- worse still when a bartender fails to check IDs. But the parents who met at Dulaney Valley High School last week had a graver concern -- parents, themselves, serving alcohol to their children and their friends.
The increasingly common practice centers on two separate debates. The first is pragmatic, and rooted in cynicism: It assumes that teen-agers are going to drink anyway, so why not teach them responsible drinking at home? The second is a lesser-of-two-evils argument: That the potential physical and emotional dangers of teen-agers drinking in secret are worse than the potential harm of parental sanction. Both reflect a sense of powerlessness that the parents who met last week clearly demonstrated is neither pervasive nor convincing.
These parents, members of parenting networks organized by the county's Office of Substance Abuse, now are poised to become the front lines in a war against the drug that kills more of their children than any illicit substance. They have pressured county police for action. More important, they are changing the terms of debate -- fighting the widespread notion that drinking should be both an accepted and expected behavior for high school students. To this end, the county itself will sponsor alcohol-free prom parties. So will these parents.
No one can legislate youthful behavior, nor can the police lock up every kid who chugs a beer. But the nascent partnership among police, schools, the county and the empowered parent networks holds an unprecedented degree of promise.