"The increase in the number of kids using alcohol in conjuction with or instead of other drugs (in the past decade) is phenomental," says Robert Jardin, director of Montgomery County's program for youth who use alcohol and other drugs.
The average young person takes a first drink, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, when he or she is 12 years old.
"It's unrealistic to think that in a society where drinking is a sign of sophistication, a kid isn't going to experiment," said Martha Aly, coordinator of the alcohol and drug programs in Prince George's schools.
"There's such an acceptance of booze," said Jardin."On TV. At cocktail parties. I constantly hear from parents who are so relieved because their kids are 'only drinking.'"
Some parents' lenient attitude toward teen-age drinking is only one of a series of hurdles faced by those trying to help youths who abuse alcohol.
Alcohol program workers say the fact that teenagers are "only drinking," rather than using marijuana or other drugs, should not comfort parents.
Alcohol causes deterioration of the liver, heart, brain and nervous system, and the effects may be intensified for young people who are not fully grown.
In addition, alcohol can make its users aggressive and more likely to take risks they wouldn't consider while sober.
Nevertheless, says Mike Tartamella, Montgomery County alcohol and drug education coordinator, "we help give an evening program on drug awareness for parents of and if we're really lucky, 40 people show up. But if we're really licky, 40 people show up. But if you have a program on college placement, you have a standing-room crowd."
In addition to helping parents learn about drugs, Tartamella helps design a curriculum to teach the subject to students.
"We don't want to be moralistic," he said. "We want to present them with the facts and with real-life situations -- like what they would do if they were at a party and everyone else started drinking."
While the curriculum is included in several courses at different grades levels, student don't have to take the courses.
Prince George's County requires that seventh graders learn about drugs, including alcohol, in a health-education course and that 10th graders cover the subject in social studies.
"Teaching the kids when they're little is important," noted Aly. "They all get wide-eyed and say they'll never use drugs. But then they get older. We need more thinking on how to help these kids then."
Prince George's youth and alcohol program, headed by Patricia Harris, holds education and counseling sessions for teen-agers, many of whom are referred there by the courts.
"We've seen 500 kids since we opened (in January 1979)," Harris said. "But that's such a small percentage of the total. And, worse, we usually see them after they've gotten into trouble for drunk driving, assault and battery or whatever."
Robert Jardin, director of Montgomery's program dealing with youth and drugs, including alcohol, says parents "are really the value-makers, not us. The bottom-line step is to get the parent to get the kid to stop drinking.
"Parents are so scared of their kids," he said. "They want to be their kids' friends. So when he says, 'But Mom, everyone has beer at parties,' the mother goes along."
In counties as large as Prince George's and Montgomery, with dozens of high schools and junior highs, parents often do not know the parents of their children's friends and have difficulty keeping tabs on their children.
Parents living near Einstein High in Kensington, however, have formed a group they call PRIDE to start checking up on their children.
"Parents know one another when their children are in elementary school," noted Rita Rumbaugh, a parent and co-chairman of the group. "Then the community gets very large, very fast.
"We've started calling other parents to make sure our kids are where they say they are. This hasn't pleased the kids, but they're getting used to it."