Quietly and grimly, nearly 300 Churchill High School parents and students filed into the school's auditorium last night to talk about the recent "epidemic," as one parent called it, of teenagers who drink, drive and die.
"It's been a hard year," Montgomery County police officer Michael Prather told the group. This year, 11 teenagers have died in car accidents in the county. "Alcohol seems to be the underlying issue, oftentimes," Prather said.
The parents gathered because their sons' and daughters' schoolmate, Sarkis George Nazarian Jr., 16, died over the weekend -- about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, after the 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving slid off Travilah Road in Potomac and hit a tree. Police have said he and his two 16-year-old passengers, who were slightly injured, had been drinking at an unsupervised party in Potomac in the hours before the accident.
In the days since, parents have been anxious with fear that "he could have been mine," as many said yesterday, and with concern about how to prevent the Nazarians' fate from becoming their own.
But Churchill senior Eric Gussin, 18, reacted with words of warning: "Parents are thinking like parents: We've got to get it to stop," he said. "No matter what you do, no matter what you do, kids are still going to drink. Most will probably still drive. It can't be stopped. It just needs to be limited."
In his blue hockey letter jacket, Gussin stood outside the doors to the auditorium with his younger brother, his aunt and his mother, Marcy Gussin, who said: "You can't stop kids from drinking. But you can stop them from driving."
It remained unclear yesterday whether Nazarian, a junior at Churchill, had alcohol in his system when he died. Police said they had not received toxicology reports from the Maryland medical examiner.
The Potomac party where the teenagers had gathered Friday night was hosted by a girl whose parents were out of town, and she was supposed to be staying elsewhere.
Referring to this, Sara London, who has a 23-year-old daughter and a child at Churchill, stood up and decried the kids who tell their parents, " 'I'm sleeping at A's house,' and A says, 'I'm sleeping at B's house,' and B says, 'I'm sleeping at C's house.' They circle wide, and no one knows where they are. You need to call the parent and say to them, 'Are you going to be there?' "
Another audience member added, "If that had been done that night by all the parents of the children, someone would have found out" that no adults were home.
When Prather told the group that the maximum penalty for providing alcohol to a minor is a $500 fine, one mother asked, "Is it just like a misdemeanor?"
"I believe it's a civil fine," the officer answered.
"A civil fine?" the mother repeated, shocked.
Yesterday, police were continuing to investigate who provided the alcohol to the teenagers at the party, but they had issued no citations, said police spokeswoman Lucille Baur. Fourteen teenagers were cited for alcohol possession when police arrived at the party in the 11900 block of Cragwood Way at 4:30 a.m. Saturday. Police said remnants of 12- and 30-packs of beer were visible when they entered the house to investigate.
One student silenced the auditorium when she stood and said: "You need to know where your kids are. I'm not blaming it just on the parents. Kids are going to lie. They're going to do whatever they want to get alcohol."
Back outside, Eric Gussin agreed that although his mother has picked him up from parties a couple of times, not all of his friends are comfortable with her knowing that they were drinking, too.
And sometimes the peer pressure can be strong for him not to call. It's not uncommon, he said, to hear students say things like, "My mom would kill me if she finds out" -- and the implication is: No parents should find out.