This isn’t Beach Week, the time of year when privileged young high-schoolers in the Washington region mark the end of school. But it’s still in the news — because of the saga involving Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Beach Week is when high school and college students flock to a shore somewhere, usually on the East Coast, for days of often debauched behavior in May and June. Everybody knows that drinking is beyond heavy, sex is frequent and drugs are in abundance.
Yet less attention is paid to the parents who enable the behavior. How?
They help rent the house, pay for it, draw up legal contracts dealing with sharing costs and behavior codes, and sometimes serve as chaperones (which doesn’t always go well). When kids break those codes and get arrested — arrest rates soar in beach towns during this time — their parents pay for lawyers to get them out of trouble.
During a hearing before a Senate committee last week, Kavanaugh presented calendars he had kept from his high school years, one of which shows days marked off for Beach Week. A senator asked him about a comment in his school yearbook in which Kavanaugh called himself the “biggest contributor” to the “Beach Week Ralph Club,” and the judge responded that “Ralph” was code for vomiting. “I’m known to have a weak stomach,” he added.
But it’s not just Beach Week when parental involvement — or lack of it — has been an issue. Kavanaugh has been accused by a professor of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were both in high school, he at the elite private all-boys Georgetown Preparatory School and she at the elite private all-girls Holton-Arms School.
The accusation by Christine Blasey Ford involves a party where parents were nowhere to be found — a common factor in various incidents we have heard of over the years about high school students getting into trouble at alcohol- and drug-fueled parties.
It goes back a long way, as evidenced by a 1990 letter about that very subject from the heads of some prestigious schools, including the one Kavanaugh attended. According to this Washington Post article:
The headmasters at seven of the Washington area's most prestigious private schools have written a letter to the parents of all students warning them that students are regularly throwing large, unsupervised parties where "excessive drinking and sexual license are common."
In what the headmasters called a rare joint effort, the letters, which were mailed Thursday, asked parents to step up supervision of their children to prevent them from attending or throwing weekend parties that are open to almost anyone and where alcohol is easily available.
The letter was written jointly "to give it more impact," said Malcolm Coates, headmaster at Landon School in Bethesda. "The fact that seven schools decided it was enough of a problem to address it is significant."
Individual schools have confronted the issue before. At the beginning of the school year, for example, Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville held a conference with parents to discuss the problem of unsupervised parties and similar activities.
On July 4, 2007, there was this Washington Post article:
When police showed up recently at a Walt Whitman High School graduation party, three young people were drinking in a vehicle parked outside the Bethesda home. Then three more teenagers walked up with a six-pack in a bag. While the police were dealing with them, the mother came outside, saw the officers and ran back in.
Montgomery County police wrote dozens of citations against the minors who were found to have been drinking at the party. The party-hosting parents were given two civil citations each, carrying fines of up to $1,500 per infraction.
The outcome for the Bethesda parents was considerably less severe than for a Charlottesville area mother and stepfather who recently began serving 27-month jail sentences for hosting an underage drinking party. In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.
The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties. Even at a time of strong concern about youth drinking and drunken driving, police and prosecutors say parents in the Washington region are rarely held responsible — criminally or civilly — for allowing teenagers to gather at their homes and consume alcohol. That’s in large part because it’s difficult to prove that the adults provided alcohol or condoned its use.
In 2016, a legislator from Montgomery County, Md., proposed a bill that would have raised the penalties for parents who host underage drinking parties, including jail time. What happened to the bill? It got watered down, as this Post article explains:
Never before had Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, stopped in the middle of a hearing to take a vote on a bill.
But after listening to emotional testimony from two fathers whose teenage sons were killed by an underage drunk driver, Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) accepted a motion to approve a bill that would stiffen the penalties for adults who provide alcohol to people younger than 21 — including a provision that would send such adults to jail.
The vote, taken in February, was unanimous. Some onlookers in the hearing room cried. Others applauded.
The bill named for slain 18-year-olds Alex Murk and Calvin Li seemed destined that evening to sail through the legislature. But it was dramatically weakened just days before the General Assembly adjourned this month....
[O]thers say the amended legislation, which awaits approval by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), no longer does what it was originally intended to do: discourage parents from hosting parties for teenagers where alcohol is provided.
And then there is Beach Week.
As Susan Coll, author of the acerbic, hysterically funny 2010 novel “Beach Week," said in an email:
Make the mistake of visiting just about any beach on the Eastern Shore in early June, for example, and you might see, as I did a couple of years ago, kids falling off bicycles, or stumbling around drunk. A friend not familiar with this particular tradition looked at me, puzzled, when I explained casually that no, there was not some sort of contagious virus in the air felling teenagers, it was just Beach Week — business as usual around these parts. Kavanaugh even boasts about his Beach Week drinking in his high school yearbook, outing himself as the biggest contributor to the Beach Week Ralph Club, meaning, presumably, that he did a lot of throwing up.
Apart from the Kavanaugh saga and what he did or didn’t do in high school, Coll’s novel starkly shows just how much parents feed into the Beach Week zeitgeist by enabling their children to attend — and sometimes escape consequences — for their behavior.
In 2013, Doug Gansler, then the attorney general of Maryland and a candidate for governor, was caught in something of a Beach Week scandal. He was photographed in what looked like a drunken teenage party at a Delaware beach house. He was chaperoning, he said — one of the ways that parents try to keep their kids from getting arrested at Beach Week. Parents whose kids stayed in the house with Gansler’s son had agreed — as is common — on a set of rules for the week, including:
- “NO ONE goes out alone; boys should always stay in pairs.”
- “NO DRIVING! All car keys will be held by chaperones. Chaperones will drive when necessary.”
- “No climbing, hanging or jumping on or from balconies.”
- “No hard liquor or controlled substances may be consumed.”
Coll was inspired to write the book — which tells a tale of parents who come together to make it possible for their daughters to attend Beach Week, how the girls get arrested, what the chaperone parents do — by events observed over many years of living in Montgomery County.
I’m publishing a little bit of the novel so you can understand the extent of parental participation:
Excerpted from BEACH WEEK by Susan Coll, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Coll. All rights reserved.
They’d been gone all day — graduation was held in an auditorium downtown, and the expedition had required major logistical planning in order to park and get the grandparents situated, and then they’d fought rush-hour traffic to get back to the restaurant where they’d reserved a table.
Leah had just corralled everyone into the backyard for cake when Charles appeared at the patio door, his face pale. In his hand were several envelopes that he’d evidently just collected from the box on the front porch.
“What is it?” Leah asked, waving the match in the air to put out the flame.
“Nothing. It can wait.”
“You look pretty upset, Dad. What is it? We can handle it.”
“Probably best not to do that right now.”
Jordan went over and grabbed one of the envelopes from his hand. It was thin, like a college rejection letter, except that the return address said “Department of Justice, Chelsea Beach, Delaware.” The other envelopes all had the same return address.
“Charles?” Leah asked tentatively.
Jordan ripped open the letter. “It’s a summons. They want me to appear as a witness in the case of State v. Cherie Long and”—she opened the other envelopes—“as a witness in the case of State v. Dorrie Glover and in the case of State v. Courtney Greene . . . and in the—”
“We get the idea,” said Leah.
“When is all this?”
Charles grabbed the papers from Jordan. “One on August eighth, another on August ninth . . . August tenth, August eleventh . . .”
“All week?” Leah asked. “Are they insane? There must be some way to get out of this. It’s an unreasonable burden. How can Jordan be expected to be there for an entire week?”
“I’ve heard it’s easy to wriggle out of, Mom. And probably all the charges will be dropped by then anyway, what with everyone having their lawyers and stuff.”
“I think we should make the best of this,” said Charles.
“Let’s embrace this thing and stop fighting it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean let’s go to the beach. Let’s have our own Beach Week.”
“I don’t know, Dad. Your behavior wasn’t exactly exemplary.”
“Hey, I just got caught up in the moment. I mean, have you ever played beer pong? I got a little carried away, but—”
“You played beer pong, Dad?” Jordan asked, incredulous.
“What’s beer pong?” asked Leah.
“We can play at the beach. I’ll teach you.”
“Dad, I don’t see that happening, somehow.”
The phone rang from inside.
“Let it go,” said Leah. “We’re just about to have cake.” But her mother had already answered it and was calling to her.
“Take a message, Mom,” Leah said.
“I did,” her mother said, returning to the patio. “It was some woman named Janet Glover. She said there’s a meeting tomorrow night at the home of Alice Long . . . something to do with Beach Week? Collecting checks to pay a lawyer or something?
I said you’d call her back.”
“Speaking of checks,” said Charles. “Did you ever get—”
“Please let’s not go there right now,” said Leah. “Let’s just enjoy this moment.”
And then there is this: