It’s that time of year: soon the current crop of Grade 12 students will leave high school behind and set out to tackle other endeavours—college or university, apprenticeships, the workforce, travel or maybe even a summer off to think about what’s next. But before that, students will receive their diplomas in a cap-and-gown ceremony, followed by a formal graduation dinner with all the trappings. For many students, however, the real party will begin once the formal festivities are finished and the after-grad party gets started. But after-grad parties tend to make a lot of people a little nervous—hence, the birth of safe grads. Before we talk about safe grads specifically, let’s back it up just a bit.
Generally, there are three types of after grad: wet, dry and safe. A wet grad is usually an all-night party where alcohol flows freely. It may be a house party, or it may be a bush party where students meet in a wooded area and blow off 12 years of steam by drinking and other risky behaviour. Either way, these parties are often unrestricted and unsupervised, increasing the likelihood of property damage, injury and even death. To be fair, some wet grads are well supervised; still, you likely wouldn’t be wrong if you suspected that some illegal activity, such as underage drinking, was going on.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the dry grad, where alcohol and drug use are strictly prohibited. This is the only type of after grad Alberta Health Services (AHS) endorses. Dry grads are intended to reduce harms that may result from drinking, drug use or other high-risk behaviour. To compensate for the lack of alcohol and to entice students to attend, dry grads usually provide numerous activities, entertainments and prizes.
Occupying the middle ground, though leaning more to the side of the dry grad in purpose and feel, is the safe grad. Like dry grads, safe grads aim to reduce harm and provide lots of fun activities. However, although safe grads can be dry, in Alberta, the vast majority allow for controlled and supervised alcohol consumption.
Safe grad has evolved over the years. Gone are the days when students were bussed or driven by their parents to the party, where they could drink heavily and party hard with minimal supervision knowing they had a safe ride home. Nowadays, safe grads are much more organized and controlled affairs. Supervision is maximal, the event is usually insured and medical and security staff are on hand—as are food and drink, the DJ, the light show, shelter from the elements, secure fencing (to keep the partiers in and uninvited guests out) and port-o-potties. The modern safe grad provides fun alternatives for -drinkers and non-drinkers alike.
The major point of safe grad is embedded in the name itself. Safe grad is intended to provide a physically and psychologically safe environment. No peer pressure to drink (though the option exists) or engage in risky behaviour. No drunk driving. No getting hurt. No damage to property. And an opportunity to celebrate one of life’s major milestones with minimal risk of mishap.
In St. Albert, Bellerose, Paul Kane and St. Albert High all have safe grads, but they reside in a grey zone. Why? In Alberta, the only condition under which minors are legally allowed to drink is when they’re at home and the alcohol is provided by a parent—but only by a parent, and only at home. It’s also illegal to provide minors with alcohol. And the reality is that even at a safe grad—however well supervised—there will be minors in attendance (some of the grads themselves will be underage), and those minors will likely have access to alcohol. So, although we’re all well aware of their existence, safe grads remain a tightly controlled and risky business often shrouded in an air of secrecy and silence.
Consider this year’s St. Albert High safe grad, which will have directly followed the formal graduation dinner and dance on May 20th. Here’s what the planning and risk–management involves. When purchasing a ticket, students and their parents or guardians must sign a waiver absolving the organizing committee, any volunteers, owners of the party site, bus company, etc. of responsibility for any personal injury or property damage. Students also can’t simply bring items such as extra clothes, water and flashlights with them to the party. Instead, they must bag their items and drop them off at a designated site beforehand. These bagged items can include six cans of beer, one mickey of hard liquor or a 2-litre cooler. (While this does, in theory, restrict the amount of alcohol partiers can consume, it also allows for binge drinking, defined by AHS as five or more drinks on a single occasion). Parents must accompany underage students to drop off their bags, and all bags will be searched, stored and taken to the safe-grad site prior to the actual event, where students can retrieve them upon arrival.
The students will also be bussed to the safe grad—no private vehicles allowed. Prior to boarding the bus, they’ll be searched for contraband, including cellphones and cameras—no phone calls, no texting, no pictures. The first bus will leave for the site (kept secret to prevent uninvited guests from crashing the party) around midnight, and the last bus will depart the site at 4:00 a.m., limiting the party time to what hard-core partiers might consider a “mere” four hours. And when students are returned to the rendezvous site after the party, they’ll be released only into the custody of the parent or guardian listed on the signed waiver.
This tight-as-a-drum level of security may arguably border on the paranoid, but it’s not completely surprising given history. In 2011, for example, Lindsay Thurber High School’s long-standing safe grad was cancelled by the committee just hours before the event due to the threat of Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) and RCMP inspections. Although the committee had the required documentation, strict rules in place regarding alcohol consumption and sufficient volunteer supervision, the problem was this: over half the graduates were underage. So, rather than risk the possibility of charges, arrests and fines… well, you get the picture.
The AGLC doesn’t license safe-grad parties and has advised all retail liquor outlets not to issue special event liquor licences for functions such as bush parties or after-hour safe grads. Insurance brokers will provide safe-grad coverage, but that coverage extends only to committee members, volunteers and those working at the safe grad (the DJ, for instance). Grads and guests aren’t covered (hence the waiver), and insurance brokers make it clear, usually in bold capital letters, that a condition of coverage is that MINORS CANNOT CONSUME, SERVE, NOR HANDLE ANY ALCOHOL.
In Alberta, most school boards, school systems and schools don’t take part in the organization and implementation of safe grads. The Greater St. Albert Catholic School Division and Paul Kane both make it very clear that they aren’t affiliated with any type of after grad, safe or otherwise—beyond that, they’re silent on the matter. This, too, is understandable—after all, should anything go awry, school boards and teachers involved in the event may be held legally, financially and professionally liable. As a result, safe-grad committees are composed of parents (not teachers) who can meet anywhere except on school property. Interestingly, in 2013, Morinville Councillor David Pattison introduced a motion to provide $250 to the Morinville Community High School’s safe grad. However, while most councillors supported safe grad, many felt that tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on what could be deemed an illegal activity, and the motion was defeated.
As it stands, safe-grad committees are in a bit of a bind, and the hope is that the authorities will look the other way. And most of the time, they do. After all, even authority figures likely enjoyed their own grad parties when they were young. And the fact is that many underage students do drink, regardless of legalities. According to a recent report by Alberta Health Services, 60% of students in Grades 10 to 12 reported drinking alcohol in the past year, and 46% indicated binge drinking. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16 to 25 year olds, and alcohol and/or drug impairment is a factor in 55% of those crashes. In 2010, 16 to 25 year olds constituted almost 14% of the population but made up over 33% of alcohol-related traffic deaths. So, given the evidence, if safe grads don’t exist, students will most likely create their own options—which may well include booze-fuelled unsupervised bush parties. So, why not make the inevitable safe?
Why not? Well, underage drinking is illegal, as is allowing minors access to alcohol. It’s really just as simple (and complicated) as that. Certainly we could work to change laws to accommodate safe grads, but who might do that work? Students graduate only once, and the tenure of most parents on safe-grad committees is less than a year. School boards and teachers? No. RCMP? No. City and town councillors? Not likely.
Besides, do we really want to condone underage drinking? We know that drinking affects the developing brain. We know that it’s likely to disturb the hormonal balance necessary for the development of organs, muscles, bones and the reproductive system. We know that adolescents who drink frequently and excessively can suffer negative effects such as changes in appetite, weight loss, eczema, headaches and sleep disturbances. We know that drinking is associated with risky sexual behaviour and
increased levels of violence.
But despite what we know, the reality is that underage drinking is pretty much a given. Perhaps we could try to delay and/or minimize the drinking by insisting on strict adherence to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, which recommend that those below legal drinking age postpone drinking for as long as possible to reduce resulting harm, talk with their parents about alcohol and drinking, stick to one or two drinks on a single occasion and never drink more than twice in a week. Perhaps we could focus our efforts, as does AHS, on establishing dry grads as a new tradition. Perhaps we could focus our efforts on educating teens about the harmful effects of alcohol. But here’s the rub: we’ve been trying to apply similar strategies to this problem for decades, and it hasn’t really changed anything.
This issue is admittedly difficult to unravel because of the circular nature of the reasoning. Underage drinking is illegal. But underage students are going to drink whether we like it or not, so why not make it safer? Because underage drinking is illegal. But underage students are still going to drink. And round and round we go…
Ultimately, where one comes down on this issue may have more to do with personal values and the particulars of one’s life experiences than it does with the logic of the arguments, which tend to just keep bouncing off one another in a never-ending cycle of “buts.”
So where do we go from here? Should we allow some flexibility where safe grad is concerned and pull it out of the grey zone? Or should we insist that underage drinking is simply not acceptable. Period.
What do you think? t8n
Supplying or knowingly allowing someone to supply alcohol to a minor can lead to a fine of up to $10,000
or up to 6 months in jail or both.
While Alberta school boards isolate themselves from safe grads, the Manitoba School Boards Association endorses them, and a plethora of useful information can be found on their website (http://www.mbschoolboards.ca/safeGrad.php), including an excellent primer on planning a safe grad.