by KRISTIAN GRAVENOR
Anybody who has walked downtown on a weekend evening probably has a good idea that countless young American students regularly visit to sow their wild oats.
But a hushed-up scandal involving students from Blind Brook High School in posh Westchester County, New York, shows that such activities aren’t always meant to be on the travel itinerary. Thirty of 67 Blind Brook junior year students who spent the weekend of May 16 in Montreal have been put under on-campus lockdown. Their privileges have been revoked and they have been forced to attend counselling after visiting bars, going to strip clubs and playing video lottery terminals in our city, according to local reports.
The school is in a well-off suburb of New York City and, according to one town journalist, “95 per cent of the students from that school go on to elite colleges.” But their educational trip apparently included several extracurricular, unscheduled lessons in grown-up behaviour. On May 30, school superintendent William Miles told local television and print media that the students engaged in six forbidden activities, although he refused to name them.
Miles failed to return several phone messages left by the Mirror asking for more lurid details concerning the students’ drunken merriment. One parent, reached by phone, said that the students had been instructed to not talk to media. The events happened even though students had been lectured by a police officer prior to the trip about the dire consequences of underage drinking.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan threatened to withhold federal funding to states that didn’t raise the legal drinking age to 21. All have now complied, making the USA the country with the world’s highest minimum drinking age. In contrast, in Quebec, people are not only legally allowed to order a drink at age 18 but are tacitly welcomed into some bars much earlier. When asked how often police raid bars for youth alcohol consumption, Montreal police rep Luc Belhumeur says it’s “almost never. There has to be a complaint to launch an investigation. Underage drinking isn’t something we get a lot of complaints about.”
Some American experts question whether the strictly-enforced ban on alcohol consumption in the states is either legitimate or beneficial. David J. Hanson, a retired professor from nearby Syracuse University, has studied youth drinking and likes Montreal’s laissez-faire policies.
“I think it’s a sensible, common-sense European approach. What we’ve done in the U.S. is try to stigmatize alcohol,” he says. “There’s an effort to prevent drinking rather than prevent alcohol abuse.
“The zero tolerance policy is counter-productive. It’s a specific prohibition that leads youth to engage in heavy episodic drinking that leads them to car crashes,” he continues. He also notes that the policy has led to a rise on alcohol-related crashes between those aged 21 to 24. “We’ve simply displaced the problem and pushed those fatalities onto people who are older.”
Alex Koroknay-Palicz, the 21-year-old president of the Maryland-based National Youth Rights Association, also dislikes the age-specific prohibition. “The complete aversion to youth alcohol use is way over the top in this country,” he says. “For whatever reason, we have a complete aversion to youth alcohol use, even though pretty much all other countries in the world, including our neighbours, have much lower drinking ages and alcohol is handled much safer than here.”
Koroknay-Palicz says that throughout the States, police actively enforce the law through such methods as sting operations on beer sellers and by busting adult-supervised house parties where kids sleep over rather than drive home drunk.
“Even though America is the land of the free, Canada seems to be far more free towards young people,” he says.