With high school prom night just eight days away and graduation only around the corner, you can almost taste a celebratory mood in the air. Fancy dresses, tuxedos and limousines are lined up - maybe even a few dance lessons at Fanny Blair Hall in Vineyard Haven to get ready.
But while the plans are laid for a fun time, school officials and police worried about averting tragedy want to send out a sobering message not just to teenagers but parents as well: no alcohol.
West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey is zeroing in on parents who might consider hosting parties where alcoholic beverages are served.
"Parents say to me, ‘They're going to go out and drink and be in a car. I don't know what to do,' " said Chief Toomey. "This comes up throughout the year, but this concept of ‘at least I know where they're drinking' is not legal."
The chief said she is adamant about prosecuting such cases, as she did three years ago against a couple on Lambert's Cove.
To bolster that statement, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School plans to publish and distribute a letter to juniors and seniors and their parents that spells out the state laws that forbid procuring alcohol for minors and allowing parties to take place where alcohol is available to underaged people.
"We'll also have a notice in both newspapers," said high school principal Peg Regan. "We're hoping people will clip it and stick it to the refrigerator."
For the first time, the high school will also encourage junior and senior students to sign a contract with a parent or another adult that guarantees a ride home during this season of parties and celebrations.
"The adult agrees to pick them up whenever and wherever they are and get them safely home," said Mrs. Regan.
At least one more preventive measure is on tap in advance of next weekend's prom. Mrs. Regan has scheduled an assembly for juniors and seniors next Wednesday to raise awareness about alcohol and drug use, safe driving habits and seat belts.
One of the speakers Wednesday will be Patricia Bergeron, the mother of former high school student Eric MacLean, who was killed in a car crash back in 2001 on County Road in Oak Bluffs. The cause of that accident was faulty steering, which went undetected because of a false inspection sticker placed on the car.
"What I want to tell them is that you don't need to be drinking, you don't need to be speeding for something to happen. It's all about the seat belts. If I can prevent one family from going through this," Ms. Bergeron told the Gazette yesterday. "It changes your whole world."
Mrs. Regan said the parents of two other teenagers, who were killed last year in a high-speed crash of a sport utility vehicle in Katama, have also homed in on the seat belt issue, contributing to a campaign to print and disseminate bumpers stickers that declare: Buckle Up For K.J. & Deebo. The two boys killed exactly one year ago were longtime boyhood friends, Kevin H. Johnson 2nd and David D. Furino.
Bracing for prom night on May 14, SafeRides of Martha's Vineyard, the student-run project that offers teenagers a free ride home many weekend nights during the school year, is planning to extend its hours of operation by one hour.
Instead of running from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., SafeRides drivers and dispatchers will be working from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., that is, if they can find teenagers willing to forego their own celebrations and lend a hand behind the steering wheel.
"We'll have sign-ups on Monday," said SafeRides board member Jessica Stone, a high school senior from West Tisbury.
Miss Stone emphasized that not all teenagers are participating in dangerous activities such as drinking and driving, but the goal of her program is to have precautions ready. The number to call is 508-939-9100.
She said the practice of parents agreeing to sponsor parties where there is alcohol is not so common. "Usually, it's more like a kid's parents aren't at home," she said.
But clearly, some parents sympathize with the pragmatism offered by the idea.
"As they get older, you know they're going to be out drinking," said Kathy Retmier, a mother of teenagers in West Tisbury. "I would rather have them drinking in my back yard, knowing they're not going to drive."
"I know it's illegal and I'm not going to do it," she added. "But sometimes you get out the scale, and it's a tough question."
Chief Toomey said the issue of teen drinking and drug use is exacerbated by the fact that the adult population on the Vineyard also engages in these activities at higher than average rates.
"There is a much bigger picture to this," said Chief Toomey. "I have larger concerns than ever before about kids being exposed to drugs. Younger and younger ages are getting involved . . . and we're not getting support on dealing with it from the community or parents."
Health surveys of both the youth and adult populations on the Vineyard offer not only proof of the problem but also speak to its depth across the age spectrum.
The Health Report of Martha's Vineyard, completed last summer by Island health organizations and public health experts connected to Johns Hopkins University, found high levels of problem drinking among adults living year-round on the Vineyard.
Similarly, a 2002 survey of risky behavior among Island teenagers reported high rates of drinking. When asked if they had consumed alcohol in the previous 30 days, 70 per cent of Vineyard high school seniors answered yes, significantly higher than the 48 per cent of high school seniors nationwide who admitted to same drinking pattern.
Among middle and high school students on Martha's Vineyard, 58 per cent said they were currently using alcohol, more than double the state average of 21 per cent rate among the same age group, according to figures released last month by the commonwealth.
Ms. Retmier, who volunteers at SafeRides and at the new YMCA-run teen center in downtown Oak Bluffs, said the Island atmosphere where drugs and alcohol are so pervasive makes the job of parenting harder.
"It's strange here with so many parents who openly use drugs with their kids right there, and share their drugs with their kids," she said. "It's hard to know how many times can you tell your kids and know that he or she is going to listen to you."