Feature Archive

Keeping Teens Safe, Locally

Grassroots volunteer programs are focusing on protecting community kids, with apparent success. 

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

The prom has ended, and the big thought on the minds of most Methacton High School students right now is just how quickly they can shed their rented tuxedos and $100 gowns for the "real" fun that awaits them in the coming hours.

Not the kind traditionally associated with this oh-so romantic night that often produces stories -- and victims -- of drunken festivity and lost virginity. This time, the upcoming fun involves rides on a mechanical bull or inside a giant steel ball rolled into 6-foot padded bowling pins. Climbs up a portable rock wall and races down a bungee run or through an inflatable obstacle course. The kids only have 30 minutes to change into shorts and T-shirts and get to the school or they'll be locked out of the Post-Prom Party, known by these students for being a lot more pleasing than the chicken primavera they just consumed at a local country club.

"We rush them by design," says one event organizer. "We don't want them to have time to do the things that are usually done on prom night." Most make the 11 p.m. arrival deadline, so they can partake in enough games, food, music, and other healthy diversions in their sprawling suburban Philadelphia school to put many state fairs to shame -- thanks to 350 parent volunteers and $25,000 they collected in donations over the year for this all-night gala. A hefty chunk of the money goes toward scores of door prizes awarded at 6 a.m., and the students must be there all night to claim them.

Methacton's Post-Prom Party is one of hundreds of similar activities held in May, which used to rank as among the busiest months for teen-related automobile accidents in America -- a statistic often attributed to the spike in underage drinking that occurs on prom night. But perhaps more importantly, it's among the umpteen grassroots volunteer programs in the nation that try to keep teens occupied and out of trouble -- with apparent success.

These programs include everything from weekend soccer leagues on manicured suburban fields to midnight basketball games in the inner city to the newest trend in teen safety intervention, post-prom parties like Methacton's that started to spring up in the late 1990s. No matter the events or their participants' income and "at-risk" assessment levels, these neighborhood programs consume the majority of the 60 million Americans who do volunteer work -- often, everyday people who get involved to help their own and other kids in their community. And they seem to be effective.

"It's hard to quantify results and say that the crime rate or underage drinking is down specifically because of X program. But from a psychologist's point of view, there is no question that there's a benefit to young people in seeing that their parents or neighbors give a damn about them," says Ivan Scheier, PhD, a retired University of Colorado professor of psychology who has written 12 books on volunteerism and founded the National Information Center on Volunteerism.

"There's well-documented evidence that volunteer programs do help low-income and other kids who are 'at-risk' by steering them to be less likely to get into trouble," he tells WebMD. "But in my experience, I also see that they also have a tremendous effect on kids you may not consider 'at-risk' -- kids from the suburbs or so-called traditional homes who aren't studied. When they see their parents banding together for an event that benefits their welfare and that of the other kids in the community, it has a big impact on their esteem that could play a major role in the paths they choose to follow."

It may come as no surprise that parental or community involvement is associated with higher rates of teen safety. Studies show that on all levels, teens who are involved in volunteer-run sports programs -- often operated at a neighborhood level -- are less likely to use drugs, alcohol, or smoke. But some of these locally run programs also seem to benefit the entire community.

"Since starting our midnight basketball games in an inner city neighborhood in 1991, the police [have reported] drops in juvenile delinquency and crime in that neighborhood on those nights -- and that trend has continued," says Stephanie Astle, program director of the Center for Drug-Free Living in Orlando, which now operates weekly games for 1,600 teens at 18 sites in Central Florida.

"It's not that we only provide a safe, structured environment to keep kids off the streets. Each night at 10 p.m., the ball stops and everyone in attendance must sit through a talk with a prevention message -- everything from the dangers of drugs and alcohol to how to fill out a job application," she tells WebMD. "And usually, we pull in people from their community to give these talks, and the kids really respond to them."

Whether it's those familiar faces or just the activities that divert them from potential trouble is anyone's guess, since the impact of grassroots interventions usually never leaves the neighborhoods they serve. Few studies can correlate a specific universal benefit from these volunteer programs.

"There have been no formal federal studies to measure the effectiveness of programs like post-prom parties that try to keep kids from abusing alcohol, and I'm not sure they could be done because these events are everywhere and usually done by that specific community," says Jim Wright, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "But the anecdotal evidence suggest that when done right -- like the post-prom parties that last until morning -- there are no crashes in many of those communities on prom night."

That's not to say that the next week, the kids aren't going to drink and drive, he says. "Interestingly, the spring used to be the second most active time for teen-related car crashes after summer, with a big spike around the time of prom and graduation," Wright tells WebMD. "But since these post-prom parties started a few years ago, now it's the fall, around the time of Homecoming. As a result, many organizers of post-prom parties, as well as our own efforts, are trying to get these kinds of events held not only after prom, but throughout the year."

Car crashes are still the top cause of death among youths, and alcohol abuse is the most cited reason for them. But the National Commission on Drunk Driving reports that their incidence is now half of what it was before 1982 -- and the sharpest decline is among high school students. Is it because of Post-Prom and similar teen safety interventions?

"When you have 670 students here for Post-Prom, that means there are 670 fewer kids out on the roads tonight or perhaps in someone's basement having a different kind of post-prom party," says Frank Carroll, police chief of the township where most Methacton students live and among the volunteers at the school's post-prom party. "This is a great community effort that, from what we've seen, seems to have a great impact on the safety of these kids."

Among them: Franco Maffei, who graduated Methacton last year, voted by students as "Most Popular," and is attending his third post-Prom party -- this time with a junior sporting a new $45 hairdo complete with flowers and a tattered Duke sweatshirt. "Over the years, because of this event, I've done my share of wrestling in padded Sumo suits and been attached to Velcro walls," says the 19-year-old college freshman. "But it's still a great place to go after the prom. Would I be drinking right now if I wasn't here? Probably. But I'm here, so I'm not."

Published May 23, 2003.




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