It took Mimi Fleury a while to decide that one of the worst ideas in America is teaching teenagers 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 teach them 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 that 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 the 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 1997 National Institutes of Health study: 40 percent of people who are drinking by age 14 become alcoholics at some point in their lives, three or four times the incidence of alcohol dependence among people who don't drink until they are 21.
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 and is about to impact the Alexandria schools' handling of substance abuse. Despite no publicity or advertising, more than 750,000 copies of the booklet have been requested by parents and schools around the country. The group calls itself the Community of Concern and has a Web site, www.thecommunityofconcern.org.
Alexandria schools spokeswoman Barbara Hunter said 5,500 booklets in both English and Spanish will be distributed to Alexandria families this year. Montgomery County distributed 10,000 booklets two years ago, and some schools are ordering more. Langley High School in Fairfax County has ordered 500 booklets and plans to give them out at a special meeting with next year's freshmen and their parents.
Fleury and her group have always worried 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."
But then the calls started to pour in. Georgetown Prep parents showed the booklet to friends with children at other schools. 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 alcohol 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 teetotaling cranks.
The booklet 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. It cites experts who say that people are not ready to drink until their early twenties. The law and science, it says, have reached the same conclusion independently: Don't drink until you're 21.
Most of the Community of Concern activists are private school parents and educators, including some at Northern Virginia schools such as Alexandria Country Day, Episcopal, Flint Hill, Langley, Madeira, Potomac and St. Stephen's/St. Agnes. They 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.
Fleury says the initiative is not just about parents helping their kids, but also parents helping other parents, schools helping other schools and 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.
Fleury said parents have told her they love the science inside the booklet, such as an MRI of an adolescent brain showing the many areas not yet 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 last month and I asked her about a breaking story I was working on -- the drunken driving arrest of Alexandria School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry. Fleury hadn't heard about it. I heard a pause on the telephone line 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 signees 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.
Overall, however, there does not seem to be much of a sense of urgency, despite prom and graduation season coming on. Some 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. Many parents who have seen or heard of the booklet also insist that letting their children drink moderately will have a beneficial effect, and that the NIH research on all 14-year-old drinkers does not say what happens when kids that age just imbibe a little wine at dinner. And they note, correctly, that studies show long-term health benefits from regular consumption of a little alcohol.
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 think one of the reasons why none of my 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. 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.