For most teens, driving home is a matter of holding their Breath, starting the car, and hoping that the consequences of their drinking will only result in a headache the next morning. For Emily Fletcher, it was life-changing.
Fletcher, a Cordova teenager, pled guilty February 7th to negligent homicide in an alcohol-related interstate accident that killed postal worker Melvin Guy of West Memphis. Fletcher was previously issued a DUI in 1998.
"[Fletcher and] other teenagers think they are invincible and that nothing of this nature can happen to them," Christian Brothers High School guidance counselor Valerie Jones says. "Fletcher's accident has opened their eyes, I think, because she is someone the students here can relate to."
Despite the 2,300 anti-drunk-driving laws passed since 1980, students are still driving with a higher blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) than the legal .08 limit. Fletcher's .264 BAC was considerably higher. According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Web page, alcohol use is not only the number one drug problem among young people, but it remains the leading factor in motor vehicle deaths. Tragically, Fletcher falls into both categories, and even more tragically, so do many other teens.
Jones says these teenagers are smart kids; they know it's illegal to do drugs and they know not to drink and drive. But it isn't hard to believe that there are other teens out there like Fletcher, carelessly driving home after a night of partying, oblivious to what could happen to them on the way home. Many high school students hold the attitude that nothing will happen to them, or that they aren't in trouble until they are caught.
"It's not necessarily always about being caught, it's about the consequences," says "Jill," a local teen. "If my mom catches me I'm definitely not as concerned as I would be if my dad caught me, because the consequences are considerably different." Jill says her parents would make her suffer for drinking under age.
"It wouldn't be worth it to tell them even if I was trying to get help," she says. "I would have to find another way."
For Fletcher, getting one DUI didn't make a difference. It was the homicide that made it real. By law, schools do not have to be notified when a student has received a DUI. This makes it much easier for kids and their parents to cover up a drinking problem.
Briarcrest Christian School principal Steve Simpson is a former principal of White Station High School. He says Memphis City Schools seldom knew when students had run-ins with the law. The only person who might learn of such problems is the student's guidance counselor.
However, for many students, the guidance counselor is the nice lady they go to when they need help scheduling classes or sending out college applications, not someone to turn to for personal problems. But in most schools, public and private, part of the counselor's job is to counsel the students when necessary. This includes counseling students with a drug or alcohol problem.
"Our students are aware that they can seek help from guidance counselors but are hesitant to do so because a lot of times they are not quite confident in them," says Eddie Beattie. Beattie, who is director of counseling services at Memphis University School, adds, "There is a fine line of speaking to guidance counselors about something that could lead to discussion of violating school policies. I think that's why students tend to shy away from it. They are also aware that if the guidance counselor knows, the parents will find out about the problem at some point."
Jones says that each CBHS student is assigned a guidance counselor and they often do build trust and confidence in that counselor.
Whether the communication is there or not, Memphis high schools are aware the problems exist. As a result, policies involving drugs and alcohol have been toughened in the last year. Beattie says the policy at MUS has always been that if a student is caught drinking on the premises or at any school function then he is subject to dismissal.
"There are extenuating circumstances but our rules here are pretty cut-and-dried," Beattie says.
Jones says CBHS has also made it clear that students caught violating policies at a school dance on another campus are subject to the same consequences. The rule holds for football games and any other events considered school functions.
This fall there will be a new policy in the student handbook for the 400 students at MUS. The school will reserve the right to perform drug or alcohol testing on students when the school considers it has a probable cause. This procedure is one step closer to the policies implemented at Briarcrest, Evangelical Christian School, and CBHS regarding drug testing.
"I certainly hope the reserving of the right [to test] will have an impact on the students," Beattie says.
For the first time last fall, CBHS tested every student in a random, hair-sampling drug test. Students were warned about the testing but not told in advance when it would be administered.
"We have gotten much support regarding the screenings and are very pleased that it has proven effective," Jones says. "The big factor is that a lot of times students need a reason not to use drugs and this testing gives them a really good excuse to say no."
Briarcrest will also perform random drug testing for this school year.
"We are doing the drug testing because we saw a need to address the issue," Simpson says. "All students are subject to the testing and the school has a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol."
"David," a local teen, says he has taken the drug test at school and that it definitely has made him think twice about doing drugs.
"There was no real way to make sure of coming out negative on the drug test unless I gave it up completely," David says. "I know not everyone gets caught but catching even one person means it's working."
ECS implemented a drug test as well but only uses it on probable cause. The process is expensive; at ECS if a student is asked to take the drug test, his parents are responsible for the cost.
"We feel that by doing this we are addressing the drug and alcohol problem realistically and are seeing results," ECS guidance counselor Linda Cordle says.
For ECS the substance-abuse policy reads: "The possession, use, delivery, transfer or sale of alcoholic or other controlled substances by students while in school or at school-sponsored events is expressly forbidden."
The policy then goes into the consequences if a student tests positive or is caught with drugs or alcohol.
"I think I can say this on behalf of any schools administering drug and alcohol testing: None of us are trying to get rid of students," Simpson says. "We are trying to help and rehabilitate the student and, by doing so, fix the problem. We will explore all possible avenues for students struggling with these problems to help the situation."
Jones says confirming drug usage is easier than confirming if a student is drinking alcohol. She says, however, that if a student has a problem with alcohol it will show up one way or another. If a student is caught intoxicated or in possession of alcohol he is suspended on the first offense and likely to be expelled on the second.
"We are not trying to turn into a detective agency to determine what students are doing," Jones says. "We are trying to identify problems and help students be the best person they can be regardless of the situation."
If a student is caught using, possessing, distributing, purchasing, or selling drugs or alcohol at a city school, that student is automatically expelled for no less than a school year. Shelby County Schools students are arrested and transported to jail on the first offense for violating drug and alcohol policies. The Memphis City Schools system even has policies against possessing anything resembling drugs or alcohol.
At MUS, if a student is caught using alcohol or drugs, the counselor, student, and parents come to an agreement about rehabilitation or other available options. ECS requires students to go through interviews with guidance counselors before being readmitted. But these are actions on the part of the school. Minors caught by law enforcement in possession of alcohol can serve up to 11 months in jail and/or pay a fine up to $2,500. The legal consequences are similar for minors caught possessing drugs. Such legal consequences are out of the control of the schools.
"Sometimes psychologists advise students to enroll in new schools after completing rehabilitation programs, but we often see students leave and return to school here," Jones says.
Cordle says at ECS, when students don't come back after rehabilitation programs, it's usually because they voluntarily don't want to, not because ECS won't let them. Some students want to skip the rehabilitation process altogether and transfer to another school.
BUT if guidance counselors are seen as a threat and parents as not understanding, where can teens seek help for their drug and alcohol problems?
Available sources and programs include the American Council for Drug Education, Caron Adolescent Treatment Center, the Hazelden Foundation, Marijuana Anonymous, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, Seawinds Treatment Center, Memphis Recovery Center, Charter Lakeside, and others. Phone numbers such as 1-800-41-SOBER, 1-800-ALCOHOL, 1-800-821-4357 (Drug and Alcohol Helpline) are also available 24 hours a day. Libraries, hospitals, bookstores, phone books, schools, and the Internet are all additional sources.
Sometimes getting the information is not the problem; paying for the treatment is. "Finances become a real problem for parents sometimes when they are trying to figure out the best treatment for their child," Cordle says.
Jones says that money is a factor in the decision-making process for rehabilitation and treatment, but many parents sacrifice what they need to to solve the problem.
"It might take some exploring, but I think there are so many agencies and programs that there's got to be something out there for everyone who needs that help," Simpson says.
Many schools host alcohol-awareness programs and similar presentations. MUS hosts a Freedom From Chemical Dependency Program for upper grades, and seventh- and 10th-graders have a week-long program on prevention, intervention, and healthy decisions on drugs and alcohol. Cordle says ECS addresses the problem through required health classes that feature alcohol and drug awareness. She also says additional programs concerning alcohol and substance abuse are scheduled throughout the year.
"We periodically have guest speakers [at Briarcrest] who em-
phasize awareness of alcohol and drugs," Simpson says.
"I would say alcohol consumption is like a stairstep, in that the older students get, the more abusive the habits become," Beattie says. "Getting parents involved with their children and the issue of drugs and alcohol is what will make a difference in the future."
Beattie believes parents must address the topic so the child doesn't have to learn about it elsewhere. According to Partnership for a Drug Free America, teenagers whose parents talk to them regularly about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those whose parents don't. Yet only one in four teens reports having such conversations.
"I would hope teens can find someone to talk to and also to learn from what they see," Simpson says. "There have been so many tragedies, it's frightening. My hope is that young people would understand the long-lasting impact alcohol and drugs have on them -- and others."
If anything good comes from the tragedy that befell Melvin Guy, it might be just that.