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Pre- and post-formal events: What role, if any, should alcohol play?

You really have to ask yourself sometimes where this whole idea of pre- and post-formal events (often referred to as ‘pres’ and ‘afters’) came from. I know when I went to school (and yes, I know that was a long time ago!) these simply didn’t exist. In fact, I’ve really only seen them really take off in a big way in the last ten years – that’s not to say they weren’t around before then, but really they weren’t seen by young people (and some of their parents!) as an essential part of their high school experience until quite recently. They certainly have become the bane of many school principals’ lives, with many trying to make it clear that they are not endorsed by the school, in fact, they strongly suggest that these events do not take place at all, if not for legal reasons (i.e., secondary supply of alcohol laws that exist in most jurisdictions), then for the very clear dangers that exist when you put a very excited group of young people together with alcohol.

I have been sent many of the notes that parents (and even organising committees of parents) have put together re: the provision of alcohol at some of these pre- and post-formal events. Some of them are truly frightening, clearly demonstrating that these people have no idea of how much alcohol they are suggesting these young people consume, or the inherent dangers in holding such events.  These notes usually provide some basic information about the proposed evening and have a permission slip attached that parents are required to sign to ensure that their child is able to drink legally, i.e., the parents putting on the event are legally covered. The last one that I was sent stated that the Year 11s and 12s attending the ‘after'(some of whom would be just 16 years of age) would be supplied a maximum of 3 UDL cans each! There was no information on exactly how many standard drinks were contained in each of these cans but at the very least we’re talking about almost 4 standard drinks, with the possibility of maybe much, much more! How can anyone in their right mind think that this is an appropriate amount of alcohol for young people of that age?
The interesting thing is that I was recently speaking to some girls who attended that particular event and when I asked them about how the night went a number of them said that they had found it ‘really difficult’ to drink that much! When I said to them that they really didn’t need to drink all that was offered, they said there was no way they could have refused as that would have been ‘social suicide’! The parents who had organised the night were the parents of the girls who did drink and there was great pressure to accept, without question, what was provided. They also made it clear that the parents who had not given permission for their daughters to drink had doomed their children to ridicule from this powerful group.
Add to this the ridiculous practice of having pre-formal drinks (I’ve heard of these even being held for Year 10s, i.e., 15 years olds) and we now have a  situation where the school formal has developed into an event that is often sandwiched between two social gatherings where alcohol is available usually provided by parents. And please don’t give me that ridiculous argument that it is “only a glass of champagne” at the ‘pre’ … no matter how much alcohol you are providing, you are then sending an adolescent off to a school event, supervised by teachers, and asking them to now look after your alcohol-affected child! It’s insane and totally irresponsible … I’m certainly not a supporter of drug testing young people, but I certainly support any school that breathalyses students as they arrive at a school formal. Why should a school be expected to supervise young people who have been drinking any amount of alcohol? There are just too many risks involved …
Last year I visited a school where parents were putting on the usual range of ‘pres’, but also a number of post-formal parties, one after another. Buses had been organised to transport these young people from one to the other, each party lasting about four hours – the last one beginning at 6am! You really have to ask yourself what parents are thinking here … why would anyone think it is appropriate, or even necessary, for Year 11s and 12s to still be partying six hours after the formal had ended?
I totally get that some Year 12s are 18 years old and legally allowed to drink alcohol, but why is it necessary for parents to feel the need to hold events around a school formal that are based around drinking? There are so many other opportunities for these young people to drink – their final year of school is usually the year of the 18th and ‘Schoolies’ is just around the corner for many of them – couldn’t the formal be an event where young people are provided the message that you don’t need to drink to have a good time?
Sadly, I don’t think things are going to get any better … even though we are seeing more young people who are choosing not to drink, we continue to see parents who regard drinking as a ‘rite of passage’ for teens and their influence is mighty powerful. To illustrate just how scary things have got I’ll leave you with a story that a mother from Adelaide (what are the parents in that city thinking?) told me earlier this year …
Jane was a parent of a Year 5 student but her school was K-12 and so when there was a call for volunteers to help out at the Year 12 formal, she thought it would be the right thing to do and also give her some idea of what was to come in the years ahead. She was given a time and a place to meet on the night of the event and when she got there she was extremely impressed with the organisation. She went to the volunteer desk and gave her name and was instructed to go to the ‘first aid centre’. Not surprisingly she thought this meant that she would be working in something like a school nurse’s area, providing things like Panadols for headaches or a band-aid or two if someone fell over.  

When she got to the medical centre, however, she found at least 6 camp beds and some pretty serious first aid equipment. She had no idea what the beds could have possibly been for and why there were so many of them. When she asked the question she was told that this area was provided to look after drunk teenagers and the reason there were six beds this time was that they hadn’t had enough the previous year! This was not the night that Jane had thought she had signed up for, and so she apologised to the organisers and left immediately!

I’m all for harm reduction and making parties safer – but providing pseudo-hospital wards for potential drunk adolescents at a post-formal event is just ridiculous and sends dangerous messages to our young people about our expectations around their alcohol use!

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