Walking a tightrope on teen drinking

Md. attorney general faced parental test

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WASHINGTON -- It's one of the fault lines of modern parenting: What do you do when you stumble into a teenage drinking party? Look the other way? Shut it down? Call the police?

Susan Burkinshaw, a PTA mom from Germantown, Md., admits that she would want to close her eyes, plug her ears and back right out the door. "I think that's what we would all want to do, but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," she says, urging parental courage.

What is very often a private conversation behind closed doors between parent and erring adolescent became fodder for broader debate last week as a highly interested public parsed the most recent controversy surrounding Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

In a vivid photograph published Thursday, Mr. Gansler is pictured walking through a throng of teen revelers at a party held at a rented beach house where his son was the DJ. Three teens are dancing on a tabletop. At least one red plastic cup is in view. Mr. Gansler said at a news conference that the red cups at the party might have contained Kool-Aid but probably contained beer.

Mr. Gansler has acknowledged that he did nothing to stop the apparent underage drinking at the house.

A month into his campaign to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, Mr. Gansler -- who is Maryland's top law enforcement officer -- has described his inaction as a mistake. But he also invoked the conflicts of parenthood: "How much do you let them go? How much do you rein them in?" He said he was "no different from any other parent."

Some parents understand his conundrum, having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s and recalling all too clearly their experiences with teen parties. They turned out OK, the thinking goes. And how wrong can it be to look past some transgressions, especially just months before kids head off to college?

All parents don't see it the same way.

"I would have ended the party," said Deidra Speight, a mother of four in Upper Marlboro, Md. "Absolutely. Just think: If something would have happened, it could have been horrible. I don't think he was thinking of that."

Added Ms. Speight: "I always feel like parents are responsible. Period. End of story. As soon as you figure it out, you need to fix it."

Not every parent navigates the experimentation of the teen years the same way. Some parents say kids need rules that don't bend. Others say many high schoolers are going to drink anyway and might as well do it with the benefit of parental supervision. Still others don't think that their teens would try something illegal.

Mr. Gansler's moment of decision in South Bethany, Del., came June 13 at a party after his son had just graduated from the Landon School in Bethesda, Md. Locally, many seniors cut loose after graduation with trips to Maryland and Delaware shore towns for "Beach Week."

Takoma Park, Md., parent Jeffrey Hopkins, whose daughter went to Beach Week in 2012, said many parents are torn about the celebration. "You want to give them freedom," he said. "You want to reward them for a successful graduation from high school. But at the same time, you realize there's real risk there."

Mr. Hopkins said he has asked himself what he would have done in Mr. Gansler's situation and admits that it's hard to be sure. Judging by the photo, he said, he would not necessarily conclude that there was drinking.

But if he knew of underage drinking, he would intervene. "We don't live our lives by black and white laws," he said. "It mostly relies on the kind of judgment you can make at the time."

But some parents still take exception. They say if they had walked into an underage beach party, they could not simply walk away. They would have summoned help or taken action.

They would feel responsible.

Michelle Jackson, who has a child at a high school in Greenbelt, Md. said she would talk to chaperons first, but if they seemed unconcerned, "I'd call the police."

"I can't imagine condoning a party where there is underage drinking," she said.

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