As the lazy days and homework-free nights of summer approach, high school students everywhere are gearing up for some serious end-of-the-year partying.
They know about the dangers of driving drunk, of course. They know they should take the car keys when a friend chugs too many beers. They know to plan ahead and bring sleeping bags to parties so they don't have to drive home intoxicated. But even the best-informed and most conscientious student may be tempted to slip when a cold beer and a hot night come together.
During the school year, SADD chapters at 21 Baltimore County high schools work at keeping students aware of the risks of drinking or drug use and provide alternatives such as alcohol-free prom parties.
But reaching students during the summer is more difficult, Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse, said yesterday. And the students' extra free time makes them more vulnerable to experiments with drugs and alcohol, he said.
That is why, for the first time in nine years, the Baltimore County Youth Conference on Drinking, Drugs and Driving was aimed not so much on prom parties as keeping students alcohol and drug free during the summer months.
Yesterday's conference at Martin's West in Woodlawn drew more than 350 parents, teachers and SADD leaders, representing about 30 schools. Much of the daylong program of speeches, workshops and panel discussions about the dangers of alcohol and drugs was presented by the students themselves.
Anita Nall, a 15-year-old Towson Catholic High School student and U.S. Olympic Swim Team member, said: "I would not be where I am today if I experimented with drugs and alcohol, and that's a fact. We all have made choices . . . but we need to learn about drugs and alcohol and their effects so that our future choices don't destroy our lives."
Franklin High School's Fineline theater group performed short skits about alcoholic parents, abusive relationships and promiscuous behavior that touched on the many ways substance abuse can affect families and friends.
One of the most effective ways for students to learn about the dangers of drug and alcohol use is through their peers, Mr. Gimbel said.
Students had the opportunity to drive a computerized car that simulates the delayed reaction time of a drunken driver. They learned about volunteer summer jobs.
"Five years ago, the biggest concern we had was drinking and driving," Mr. Gimbel said. "Now, it's time for the process to move to the next level -- and that is, no use at all."
Many students agreed yesterday that persuading their peers to avoid alcohol totally this summer would be difficult.
"Drinking, as long as you stay out of a car, is more accepted in society," said Sara Shiflet, a 16-year-old Dulaney junior.
Trying to change that acceptance, Mr. Gimbel said, "is the toughest thing we've ever done."