Unmoved by the pleas of Fairfax County students and the humorous confessions of an Explorer Scout counselor, a House of Delegates committee today narrowly approved a measure to raise the legal age for buying beer in Virginia from 18 to 19.
'We have a very serious social problem involving the abuse of alcohol by teen-agers," said Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax County), who sponsored the bill that now must be considered by the full House.
Barry said his measure was aimed "primarily to get alcohol out of the schools" so that 18-year-olds cannot buy beer for their younger 17-, 16- or 15-year-old friends.
His precautions were challenged by several students and the scout counselor who just happened to be visiting the legislature with his troop.
"You say this wasn't a problem before you lowered the drinking age three years ago," said Charles Sturgeon of Newport News. "Well, I'm 28, and when I was 14 I was arrested in Mytrle Beach, S.C., for defacing public property. I was so bombed I didn't know my name or where I was."
Explaining the situation in front of his troop and amid the guffaws of committee members, Sturgeon told how he had gone out to help celebrate his 17-year-old brother's high school graduation and had gottn.en drunk with a group of youths.
"I asked someone where the bathroom was, and he pointed me over to something that turned out to be a photo booth,' said Sturgeon. "But I thought it was a restroom. And that's how I got arrested for defacing public property."
Stugeon, really wound up now, kept the legislators laughing with tales of how he playfully set fire to a school annex to scare a teacher and successfully manufactured banana wine -- all at the age of 16.
"I just don't think that changing the age limit will solve the problem since people can always get fake i.d.'s," said Sturgeon, adding reassuringly that "I'm a nicer kid than I was then."
Del. Barry used the appearance by several Fairfax County students to mention a recent fire and $4.5 million worth of damage to Fort Hunt High School "done by three boys who got drunk."
Paul Risley, a 17-year-old student at Groveton High who said he counsels students with alcohol and drug problems, questioned whether there was a relation between being intoxicated and setting fries.
"You have to have a motive to burn down a school," Risley said.
Risley also warned that Northern Virginia students who are prevented from buying beer in the state will go to Maryland or the District of Columbia to buy it, since the drinking age there also is 18.
Proponents of the bill noted what they said was the alarming increase in drunk driving offenses and fatalities by teen-agers since the drinking age was lowered, but other students countered that having to go to D.C. or Maryland to drink would increase the teen-age drunk's time on the road.
S. John Davis, superintendent of Fairfax County Schools, supported raising the age limit, arguing that "not unlike our total society, some young people turn to alcohol use and abuse as an escape from the need to cope with real life situations."
But a father who described himself as an entrepreneur from Virginia Beach, said he would rather have his son drink beer than use drugs -- substances he said that are easily available in schools despite their illegality.
Just prior to the committee's 9 to 7 vote to send the bill to the house floor, its chairman, Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) said he would oppose the measure "because I do not believe this will change anything."
Moss, an attorney who has often represented restaurants in their applications for liquor licenses, said he also hoped to avoid causing problems for the "many, many" young Navy personnel stationed in his area.
Barry insisted that the legislation should be approved "not to deprive teen-agers of any rights or privileges but really to protect them from themselves."