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Haddonfield attacks teen drinking "culture of acceptance"

Left home alone, a Haddonfield teenager quickly organizes a weekend house party. As word spreads in the affluent suburb, dozens of youngsters descend upon the unchaperoned bash where beer and booze freely flow.

Left home alone, a Haddonfield teenager quickly organizes a weekend house party.

As word spreads in the affluent suburb, dozens of youngsters descend upon the unchaperoned bash where beer and booze freely flow.

It's an all-too-familiar scenario in Haddonfield, which has been forced to confront the staggering toll of underage drinking: two alcohol-related deaths in the last seven months; drunken teenagers rushed to the hospital in the last two weeks; and the arrest this year of two dozen for underage drinking, including 13 teens who trashed a Maple Avenue home during an unauthorized rowdy party, defecating on a piano and spraying urine all over the house.

Haddonfield officials are trying to combat an entrenched culture of underage drinking fueled by ready money and seeming indifference by some parents, especially those who leave their children home unsupervised.

They have been speaking out at district back-to-school nights, assemblies and community forums in this Camden County suburb known for its top-rated public schools and shopping district, trying to hold students and parents responsible.

"We had to step up and admit there was a problem," Mayor Tish Colombi said. "This has been very painful for our community."

But many wonder how far that strategy will go in curbing underage drinking and ending what has become widely accepted as a rite of passage from middle school to high school.

Two weeks after Colombi made an unprecedented appearance at Haddonfield Memorial High to pitch her message to freshmen, the partying continued.

At least 50 teenagers, mostly freshmen and sophomores, attended a weekend party last month on South Hinchman Avenue hosted by a 14-year-old girl whose parents were in Illinois, police said.

The party was broken up after police were summoned by the mother of a 14-year-old female partygoer described by police as incoherent and "highly intoxicated." The girl was taken to a hospital.

Inside, police found the party host and another girl and charged both with alcohol consumption. The party thrower was also charged with hosting a juvenile alcohol party.

"I'm unhappy that it happened, but I'm not surprised," Colombi said. "It just tells me that we have work to do."

Less than a week later, a juvenile male was found drunk in the woods behind the high school stadium during a Friday-night football game between Haddonfield and Collingswood. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, police said.

There have been other incidents - at least nine this year involving underage drinking - that prompted borough officials to launch what has been dubbed "A Call to Action."

"How many deaths of children is it going to take for us to become more proactive? When does it become an epidemic? When 10 die?" asked the Rev. Patrick Close, pastor of Grace Church in Haddonfield.

So far this year, there have been 63 juvenile arrests in Haddonfield, including 22 that were alcohol-related, police said. In 2006, there were 43 such arrests, and 13 were alcohol-related.

Those arrested for using drugs or alcohol face disciplinary action by the school district for violating its 24/7 policy, which holds students accountable for their behavior in and out of school. The penalties range from community service to banishment from extracurricular activities.

The incidents have been the talk among students at Haddonfield Memorial High, where seniors are mourning two classmates who died earlier this year four months apart, senior Matthew George said.

"It's an issue that is very close to my heart. We will be graduating with two empty seats," George, 17, said.

But many students were reluctant to speak publicly about the issue. At least a dozen students and parents approached for this story said they feared being ostracized or bullied if they spoke out.

George, a peer leader, believes some students have been deterred from drinking by the deaths of John "J.T." Haggerty and Patrick Gibson.

Haggerty, a 17-year-old football player who had been at a party, led police on a car chase, then leaped to his death from the Ben Franklin Bridge in April.

Gibson, also 17, died in August from a prescription drug and alcohol overdose, authorities said.

"It's gotten to the point where it's dangerous," George said. "We need to really change the culture."

Schools are also trying new approaches, including peer programs to deter underage drinking and Friday-night social events such as an ice cream party to offer alternatives to drinking parties.

They invited Colombi to speak at freshmen orientation, warning students about the dangers of drinking. She spoke again at the high school last week to parents at back-to-school nights.

Hunter Gault, 14, had a mixed reaction and said, "I don't think it gave the freshmen the best view of the school."

Many have doubts that the plan would make a difference in a community of 12,000 where privileged youth have the resources to buy liquor and the clout to avoid legal trouble if they get caught drinking.

Even after the last death, some students mourned Gibson by gathering at a house and drinking hours after his funeral.

Residents say they routinely find beer cans in woods where they believe teens gather to drink.

Parents attending community forums have been shown Internet photos of teenagers at a party last spring with 25 liquor bottles, a boy posed next to a tower of beer containers, and a girl with a bottle of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum strapped to her chest.

With cell phones and text messaging, a party can be hastily arranged when parents leave home, Police Chief Rick Tsonis said. "You have an instant party."

"We have to accept that one of the things in our town is that kids have a lot more money available to them. That really contributes to this," Borough Commissioner Edward Borden said.

There have also been few serious ramifications in court or school for the underage drinkers or for their parents, who could be charged if authorities believe they knowingly allowed minors to gather at their home to consume alcohol.

Of the 13 teenagers charged with trashing the Maple Avenue home last March while the owner was away, all but three struck plea deals that gave them a year's probation. Only two boys and a parent apologized at the judge's urging.

"There wasn't any kind of repercussion," Close said.

John Connell, who heads the borough's Municipal Alliance Committee, cautions that Haddonfield is not unlike many other communities grappling with underage drinking.

A 2002 report commissioned by the school district found that Haddonfield had a "culture of acceptance" of illegal substance use by teenagers, and it was generally accepted "that alcohol is a regular part of their schooling experience."

"It was an unspoken thing: when you get to high school you will drink and party," recalled Brian Quigley, 31, a former borough resident who plans to share his story with students next month. "I decided to jump the gun a bit. I started drinking in eighth grade."

At back-to-school night events, parents were given a copy of a report by the U.S. surgeon general that warns about the harmful effects of alcohol. They were also asked to sign "Safe Homes" pledges, promising not to allow underage drinking. A directory listing the homes will be distributed to parents.

"We're beyond the point of crisis," Connell said. "We need to have a thoughtfully considered approach to how the community can best respond to these situations."

Addressing about 200 parents and middle school students at a recent peer-mentor program, Colombi delivered a low-key but frank message. "The very health and safety of our children . . . is at stake," she said to applause.

Monica Anderson, mother of an eighth-grader, said Colombi's statement was "a brave message" that parents - including those with younger children - needed to hear about underage drinking.

"If you focus just at the high school you have missed an opportunity to change the culture," school Superintendent Alan Fegley said.

Dana Reganata, another parent, added: "I'm happy that she's talking about it. Any effort will make a difference if it helps one child."

Haddonfield School District

Profile: 2,438 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; $32 million budget; 12 percent special education.

Funding: $11,321 per student, ranking 26th among 103 districts in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties; 7 percent of the district's revenue comes from the state.

Academics: Haddonfield Memorial High School has 778 students; 2006 average SAT, 576 math, 567 verbal, down from 589 math and 585 verbal in 2002; 96 percent of class of 2006 took SATs; 91 percent attended a four-year college.

SOURCE: Inquirer Report Card on the SchoolsEndText