Del. Constance A. Morella (R-Montgomery) went to Walt Whitman High School yesterday to explain why she would vote later in the day to raise the drinking age in Maryland from 18 to 21 years of age. Morella described her appearance before 500 teen-agers, some of whom booed, jeered and questioned her statements, as "sort of like being Danielle in the lion's den."
Morella, whose two daughters attend the Bethesda school, said, "I knew that Walt Whitman was the one school in the county I was sure to find good, healthy opposition to the bill."
She was not disappointed.
"We're not just saying that if we can go to war and fight, we ought to be able to drink," said one student. "But the age of majority is not fair. There are some people who are not going to abuse their right to drink at 18. The laws should be geared to punish those who do abuse that right."
The audience cheered.
"You say that this bill is designed to protect the young people--our most precious resource. And that's commendable," said another student. "But is it not true that most repeat offenders arrested for drunk driving are over 25? Why not tighten the laws on all drivers. Is it that youth is your most valuable commodity, or have you targeted us for this law because we have so little say?" the student asked.
"Gee! You students here do articulate well, don't you," Morella responded, before saying that the General Assembly is attempting to develop stricter drunken-driving laws for all.
"I believe that your concern is valid, but your approach is all wrong," suggested another student. "Wouldn't peer pressure be a more effective deterrent?"
Morella responded: "The peer pressure to drink is much greater than pressure on young people not to drink."
The assembly began with Morella citing statistics that suggest that drunken driving is a major problem among young drivers.
"It appears that fatal automobile accidents that involve young people seem to rise and fall, depending on the drinking age," Morella said, as her youthful listeners alternately applauded or jeered the points in her speech.
"When the state of New Hampshire raised its drinking age, drunken driving incidents dropped 75 percent," she said. "Michigan reduced its drinking age and alcohol-related accidents increased 25 percent. The state then raised the legal drinking age and drunk-driving accidents went down by 20 percent.
"Other statistics show that teen-agers are disproportionately represented among the persons killed in drunk-driving accidents," Morella continued. "Although teen-agers are only 9 percent of the driving population, they make up 25 percent of the victims of drunk-driving fatalities."
Morella said a survey of 1,100 teen-age students in Maryland revealed that one-third of them drank alcohol at least once a day.
"The question is where are these young people getting it," she said. "Sure, some are getting it from their homes. But others are getting it from older students. They have their 'booze line.' They have their way of getting it. But you know that much better than I do."
That comment prompted loud boos from the audience.
"Out of 88 high school students suspended across the state last year for drinking on school property, 80 of them were under 18," she went on, despite sustained boos and jeers.
Afterward, Diana Finzi, a 17-year-old junior, said, "If we can't drink in Maryland, D.C. is so close we'll go there."
But senior Chip Forward, 18, said, "She had a point about the young students asking upperclassmen to get them liquor. I've had strangers come up to me and ask me to buy it for them."
"I admired her for coming," said a 16-year-old junior, "but she avoided our questions."
Morella said she was not shaken by the students' reaction. "What I like about Whitman students is that they are willing to let you know in no uncertain terms just how they feel on a subject," she said.