It took Mimi Fleury a while to discover that one of the worst ideas in America is teaching your teenager to drink responsibly.
Back in 1993, when the oldest of her three sons was starting high school, she faced the demon that all parents of teenagers face: what should she do about alcohol? Friends told her: "Drinking is a rite of passage, Mimi. Let them drink in your basement, where you can keep an eye on them. Just take the car keys. If you don't teach them to drink responsibly now, they will go wild in college."
She did not take their advice. She and her plastic surgeon husband, who live in Chevy Chase, were not comfortable telling their children it was okay to break the law on underage drinking. But she still was not sure what positive action she could take.
Then James P. Power, the headmaster of her sons' school, Georgetown Preparatory in North Bethesda, talked her into producing a booklet of advice for parents on this subject as part of her role as president of the school's Parents' Board. She began calling medical authorities and checking the latest research, where she found this remarkable finding in a National Institutes of Health study: 40 percent of people who are drinking by age 15 become alcoholics at some point in their lives.
That was enough for Fleury. She and a group of other Georgetown Prep parents got to work, with help from Beth Kane Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital's Addiction Treatment Center. Five years later, the 28-page booklet they produced has become an underground sensation, with more than 750,000 copies requested by parents and schools around the country, despite zero publicity. They call themselves the Community of Concern [thecommunityofconcern.org]. They not only distribute the booklet but have used a $100,000 donation from Houston parent and builder David Weekley, to create a new tool -- an on-line course for parents based on the booklet and designed by Baylor University experts.
And yet they still worry about parents who think that alcohol is a necessary learning experience for adolescents, like first kisses or SAT tests. The fear of offending such people was so great that in the initial version of their booklet, then thought to be just for Georgetown Prep parents, the following words -- now prominently displayed on page 2 -- did not appear:
" 'Learning how to drink' during adolescence is not a 'rite of passage' nor a 'part of growing up'. When teens are allowed to drink at home, they are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs outside the home AND are at risk to develop serious behavioral and health problems related to substance use."
Fleury said the group knew many nice, intelligent people who would be alienated immediately if that were the booklet's message. They told themselves that changing the culture was a gradual process, and they had to take small steps.
But then the calls started to pour in. Georgetown Prep parents showed the booklet to friends with children at other schools. Fleury knew there was nothing else like it, since she had searched in vain for something she could crib from when Power had pushed her to get the booklet done. But she had not expected such a growing demand for the results of her little project. Everybody seemed to want a copy, so the Georgetown Prep parents invited parents at other schools to participate in spreading the news.
The previously censored warning against home schooling in beer and wine consumption went into the next edition. Once the Georgetown Prep group realized parents yearned to see the research on the effect of alcohol on adolescent brains, they no longer feared being written off as teetotalling cranks. The booklet became better, and even more popular. It says that kids should wait until their brains and bodies are both physically and emotionally mature enough to deal with the biochemical alterations of alcohol ingestion. The research indicates that people are not ready to drink until their early twenties. The law and science say the same thing independently -- don't drink until 21.
Most of the Community of Concern activists are private school parents, who have begun to see that the big tuition bills they are paying don't make much sense if alcohol and other controlled substances are going to lead their kids to blow off their homework, forget their lessons and risk a rejection from their first choice college. The booklet's professionally printed research data, including color photos and brain diagrams, cost the group $5 a copy to produce at first, but the growing volume has cut the price to $1.65. Each school must order 1,000 copies to join the group. Fleury praises the example of Georgetown Prep admissions director Michael Horsey, who holds a meeting each spring for all boys just admitted to the ninth grade, and their families, to get their copies of "A Parent's Guide For the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use," and discuss its contents before the boys begin to attend the school.
Fleury says the initiative is not just about parents helping their kids, but also parents helping other parents, schools helping other schools, communities helping other communities. "The magic lies in the idea of the partnership of parents, students and schools working together to prevent underage drinking," she said.
The school ordering the booklet gets its insignia, its substance abuse policy and a list of other participating schools in its area prominently displayed on the front or back covers. This tells parents that this is not some generic pamphlet copied off the Internet, but that their school has endorsed the contents and made it a priority. Fleury said parents have told her they love the science inside, such as an MRI of an adolescent brain showing the many areas not yet been fully wired, and vulnerable to damage from too many parties, supervised or otherwise.
"In the past, you could have a discussion with another parent about whether drinking should be a rite of passage and both of you could walk away with your opinions still intact," Fleury said. "But not after you read this. You cannot argue with the scientific facts."
That doesn't mean the prevailing American cultural assumptions about alcohol have changed much, Fleury admits. That was evident when she first called me a week ago and I asked her about a breaking story I was working on -- the drunk driving arrest of Alexandria, Va., school superintendent Rebecca Perry. She didn't know about it. On the telephone line I heard a pause, and then a gasp. "But she signed our statement!" Fleury said.
It turned out that Perry was one of 48 educators to endorse a Community of Concern manifesto written by local education leaders. The signers promised, among other things, to model appropriate behavior for their students. Perry subsequently apologized to Alexandria students and parents for what she called a big mistake. Fleury said she was aware of Perry's statement and hoped she would continue to support the prevention of underage drinking by using the booklet in her district. An Alexandria schools spokeswoman said Perry is doing just that, with 5,500 booklets in both English and Spanish set to be distributed this year. Montgomery County distributed 10,000 booklets two years ago, but lacks the funds to do more.
There does not seem to be much of a sense of urgency. Some radio talk show hosts in the Washington area, and many of their callers, said they did not see why the Perry incident was such a big deal. She was a very effective superintendent, they said. She didn't kill anybody. Lots of responsible people get into that situation. There was much shrugging on the air.
As I have indicated before, I am an extremist on this issue. I got drunk twice when I was a teenager, did not like it, and have limited my alcohol intake since to one sip of wine every five years or so. I have on occasion contemplated voting for the Prohibitionist Party candidate for president, and would be happy to empty out the family liquor cabinet if my wife would let me (except for the vermouth that I need for my dynamite mustard sauce.) I think one of the reasons why none of our three adult children drink is because neither my wife nor I do.
So I hope the Committee of Concern someday goes one step further and suggests that parents think about curtailing their own alcohol use while they have teenagers at home. No matter what they say or don't say to their children, their example still had great power. I learned this while researching a book on our best public high schools. I visited one of the regular high school keg parties conducted in the Sheldrake Woods near a country club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. I nearly broke a leg tripping over tree roots in the dark, but eventually I found the party -- several dozen teenagers, bundled up against the November chill, standing around with plastic cups of beer in their hands, making light conversation.
It looked exactly like every adult cocktail party I had ever attended. It was no mystery whose habits they were emulating, and the Committee of Concern research makes clear this was just practice for the more serious drinking they would do in college -- and about which they had heard their parents express such warm memories.
But that's just me. Fleury and her group seem to be moving forward carefully, gauging just how much their audience can take. It occurred to me, while reading their booklet, that I never hear parents these days say they want their children to learn to smoke responsibly. So that's progress. I hope we have more.