Carmel High has a reputation as a “problem” drinking school, and based on recent statistics that reputation seems to be deserved.
According to the 2012-13 California Healthy Kids Survey, drinking among Carmel High’s junior class was 10% higher than the state average of 33%, and binge drinking at CHS was reported as 7% higher than the state average of 22%.
According to Heath Rocha, Carmel Unified’s director of student services and child development, affluent communities like Carmel often experience higher rates of underage drinking, although rates of binge drinking at CHS are higher than in many other wealthy communities.
Rocha explained via email that some factors that lead to this are easy access, due to many homes having large supplies of alcoholic beverages, like wine cellars and stocked bars. Also, he says parents in prosperous communities often travel for business and pleasure, providing plenty of opportunity to drink and hold parties.
Rocha adds that the Carmel community surpasses many other affluent communities in binge drinking.
“Our rates of binge drinking are even higher than many other affluent communities,” Rocha says. “Our students binge drink more often than any school in the county.”
One CHS senior boy says, “I drink recreationally, usually with other people around. I am either sober or smashed. I prefer no in-between.”
Carmel High support counselor Kate Miller says most students who come into her office with problems related to alcohol come because of making bad decisions and being embarrassed about those decisions.
“Mostly kids come in after having drunk too much alcohol,” Miller says. “In other words, ‘I went to this party and drank too much, and now it’s hard for me to come to school because of a decision I made.’”
Carmel students who drink cite some of the main reasons as trying to “get a buzz” or dealing with emotional problems such as depression or anger.
“We’re always expected to act so mature for our age, but we’re being treated as children, so drinking lets us act like kids for a few hours,” one senior girl says.
Students say drinking is a way for them to forget their problems.
As another senior boy puts it, “When I am extremely angry or depressed, drinking allows me to forget what’s bothering me.”
Another senior male says, “It’s fun, you become a different person that you aren’t every day. Everything becomes more exaggerated.”
These factors are the focus of a county-wide social host ordinance, which, according to Rocha, would “control private parties where underage drinking occurs.” Rocha adds that “These ordinances serve as a significant deterrent to hosting parties where alcohol is made available to youth.”
In some cases, parents or guardians can be fined up to $1,500 under the social-host law, which is being adopted by the Monterey County Office of Supervisors.
Rocha cites some of the main risks associated with underage drinking as injuries or death from accidents, alcohol poisoning, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases due to unintended sexual activity and rape or other sexual assault.
According to the Foundation for a Drug Free World, “90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.”
“Alcohol is classified as a depressant, meaning that it slows down vital functions,” the foundation’s informational booklet about alcohol abuse states, “It reduces a person’s ability to think rationally and distorts his or her judgment.”
There is at least one report of a sexual assault or rape every year connected with underage drinking, Rocha says.
Students often obtain their alcohol through older siblings or friends or simply from it being available at their homes.
“I get it from my friends or sneak some from the bar in my house,” one senior boy says, “or if my cousin is in town, he’ll usually get some for me.”
Some even resort to stealing from local stores.
“I’ve heard of two of my friends saying they went to Safeway late at night and there were only a couple people working there,” one male senior says. “Someone provided a distraction out back, and they were able to grab two bottles each.”
But Rocha warns against the idea of underage drinking as a “rite of passage.”
“As a community of parents, we need to move past a state of denial and acknowledge that binge drinking is a problem,” Rocha explains, “and communicate with each other to ensure that students are not engaging in at-risk behavior which often leads to significant consequences, sometimes death.”