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As prom season approaches, students warned of dangers

Schools taking action to help teenagers stay safe as they celebrate

Cara Filler, who lost her twin sister 15 years ago in a traffic accident, addresses students at the Weymouth High School “Prom Presentation.’’ Cara Filler, who lost her twin sister 15 years ago in a traffic accident, addresses students at the Weymouth High School “Prom Presentation.’’ (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Johanna Kaiser
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2010

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Prom is a magical event for many high school students. It’s a chance to dress up, pose for photographs, and dance the night away with friends and maybe even that special someone. But for parents and school officials worried about underage drinking and all the dangers that come with it, prom is one of the most stressful nights of the year.

Just ask Patricia Connors, principal of Plymouth South High School. She “always, always’’ worries about her students on prom night. “Some nights you don’t sleep,’’ she said.

Connors is not alone in her concern, but school officials south of Boston aren’t just wringing their hands in worry. Many are working with students to ensure they make the right decisions during prom and graduation season.

In Weymouth, with backing from the school district, the high school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter has been encouraging good decision-making about drinking, driving, and other life choices. For its annual “Prom Presentation’’ recently, the group invited Cara Filler, a speaker on peer pressure and traffic safety, to talk to students about the impact of their decisions. Filler began speaking publicly 15 years ago after she lost her identical twin sister, Mairin Johnston, in a car accident a day after their 18th birthday.

“The only thing that could have saved my sister’s life was a different choice,’’ Filler told an auditorium full of juniors and seniors, many of them freshly licensed to drive. Johnston chose to get into the car with her boyfriend, Filler said, and her boyfriend chose to drive at 110 miles per hour down a city street before losing control of his car, and colliding with an oncoming vehicle.

“It’s your life, your choice,’’ Filler said. “I just want to offer you choices you didn’t know you had.’’

Filler’s presentation hit a nerve with students, but at a number of other schools it’s the students who are making the biggest impact.

Old Rochester Regional High School’s student-run project “Every 15 Minutes’’ is named after the fact that someone dies in a drunk-driving accident every 15 minutes. Every year before prom, several seniors stay at the school overnight to create a skit about the dangers of drunken driving. The next morning they announce that one of their classmates has been killed, and that student’s parents read a letter of goodbye in front of the school.

It’s a “powerful’’ and “shocking’’ enactment because it hits so close to home for students, said principal Michael Devoll.

In Duxbury, preventing drinking on prom night is a joint effort in the public schools: Fifth-grade students in the elementary school’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program create posters to hang outside of the prom and prom procession reminding the high-schoolers not to drink. Many of the students then go to the prom procession to see their signs and the older students.

The high school students “remember their own childhood and feel more of the pressure of being a role model’’ when they see the younger children watching them, said Maura O’Rahilly, the high school advisor for the local Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter. It’s also an early lesson for the fifth-graders about the dangers of alcohol.

In some communities, schools also get the parents involved.

Norton High School has a student-parent forum on drinking. Others, including Avon, East Bridgewater, Norwood, Scituate, and Plymouth North, host informational meetings about the laws against giving teens alcohol and urge parents to sign a contract promising to maintain a “safe house’’ where no drugs or alcohol are served.

These presentations, forums, and pacts have helped to maintain a drug-free culture at many schools year round, but prom night enforcement is still vital to student safety. On prom night, many schools combat drinking and help students rise above peer pressure with other measures.

Schools such as Avon, Hanover, Dedham, Mansfield, Old Rochester Regional, and both Plymouth high schools require every student to pass a Breathalyzer test at the prom. Others, including East Bridgewater, Rockland, and Wareham, only test a student if officials suspect he or she has been drinking; school officials say knowing the test is available is often enough to deter drinking.

When Whitman-Hanson Regional High School instituted mandatory Breathalyzer tests two years ago, principal Edward Lee braced himself for what he expected would be a backlash. But he was pleasantly surprised to find that students supported the decision, he said.

“It took the peer pressure off them to participate in drinking alcohol. It was enough of an excuse to help kids not do it,’’ he said.

Some schools, such as Cohasset, Norwood, Scituate, and Silver Lake Regional, fend off the pressure to drink or drive dangerously by transporting students to and from prom in coach buses or trolleys. It might not be as glamorous as riding in a limo, officials concede, but it prevents students from drinking and driving, and cuts down on post-prom parties. A limo driver will drop off students anywhere; the coach buses return to the school where parents or guardians wait.

The precautions don’t stop the students from having fun. Michael Gill, assistant principal and senior class advisor at Cohasset High School, said his students enjoy the buses because they can sing and chat with all their friends instead of just the few that can fit into a car or limo. It’s also one less thing students, or their parents, have to pay for.

Most officials said they have not had an alcohol-related incident at prom since they started these policies. Still, they worry.

“You always have to be worried about [students] making the right decision, whether they are 17, 18, 19, or 36,’’ said Stephen P. Sangster, Rockland High School principal.

In the Weymouth High School auditorium, Filler suggested ways students can keep themselves safe. She recommended hiding a friend’s car keys if they have been drinking (the water tank of a toilet is her favorite hiding spot) or pretending to be sick to get a driver to slow down. She also told students to call an adult if they could not handle a dangerous situation on their own.

Filler reminded students that they can find themselves in dangerous situations whether or not drugs or alcohol are involved.

“You deal with two of the most powerful drugs every day: peer pressure and testosterone,’’ she said, adding that her sister’s boyfriend, who suffered only minor injuries, was sober at the time of the accident.

The pressure to look cool or tough by drinking or driving fast can be overwhelming, she said. But that is why students should not only stand up for themselves, but also “stick your neck out for your friends — they might not be as strong as you are,’’ Filler said.

Many in the audience cried as they watched Filler’s slide show of the sisters growing up. After the presentation, some lingered to give the speaker a hug and tell her of their own losses.

Over the next two months, high-schoolers across the region will celebrate prom and graduation, and some are very likely to face the decision of whether or not to drink and/or do drugs. Parents and school officials hope these presentations and discussions stay with the students, so their merry-makings do not become tragedies.

“We’re hoping they get the message,’’ said Jacob Santamaria, Dedham High School principal. “All you can do is hope and pray kids make the right decision.’’

Johanna Kaiser can be reached at jkaiser@globe.com.

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