LaSalle Academy fights back against underage drinking

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PROVIDENCE – The story is old news by now, Catholic school students were caught having a party, underage drinking was invovled, the local police were called and now the students must face the consequences of their decisions.

It’s a story that is all to familiar to Rhode Islanders. In recent years it seems that underage drinking, and the dire consequences that it can bring, has rocked so many of the state’s cities and towns, and the media’s coverage of the issue is unrelenting. But something is different about this most recent story.

That something, is the consequences these 31 LaSalle Academy students faced not from their parents or from law enforcement, but from their school. Word quickly spread around the school about the November 11 party in Bristol and the 17-year-old girl who was arrested, and eventually made its way to the ears of LaSalle Academy Principal, Donald J. Kavanagh.

Kavanagh and his staff conducted interviews, called parents and pieced together the entire story. Once it was clear that LaSalle students had participated in illegal activities, justice was swift. Nevermind that the party was on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend, and nevermind that the school is in Providence and the party was in Bristol. LaSalle Academy students are held accountable to the student code of conduct while they are enrolled at LaSalle Academy, whether it’s a school vacation, weekend or summer break. “The basis for that LaSalle code is that if you’re a LaSalle student you should represent LaSalle 24/7,” Kavanagh said.

The 31 students who were found to have been at the party, seniors, juniors and sophomores, 29 of who were school athletes, were all suspended. They were given a one-day suspension from school and a five-day suspension from all school activities, including clubs and sports. That suspension also had to include one game. A particularly tough break for the numerous football players who were involved and were forced to sit out of the Thanksgiving Day football game.

There was no bargaining, no commuted sentences and there were no excuses. “If they were there when the police came they were there when illegal activities happened,” Kavanagh said.

LaSalle Academy, it seems, does not overlook serious indiscretions even though they happened on the parents’ turf. Nor does the administration have any intention of sweeping anything under the proverbial rug. “It gave us an opportunity to send a strong message on this particular issue,” said Kavanagh, who also mentioned that he has received supportive phone calls from parents and school officials across the state since word of the students’ punishment hit the news. This is certainly not the first time LaSalle Academy administrators have used the school’s code of conduct to punish students for unacceptable behavior that occurred outside of school, but it is by far the most high-profile instance.

Gregory Albanese, a teacher at LaSalle and the faculty advisor to the school’s chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, said that there was a lot of support for Kavanagh’s decision. “I think most people in this community are glad the suspensions were handed out,” he said.

LaSalle Academy senior Allison Andrews said most LaSallians understand that the school they attend is a part of them for longer than the school day. “Going to LaSalle is a choice,” she said, “Everyone at LaSalle has to live by a code of conduct in and out of LaSalle because it does reflect on the LaSalle name.” But, the punishments for all the students were certainly harsh, “It sucks that people who weren’t drinking had to be made an example,” she added.

To Albanese and Kavanagh the issue of underage drinking is much more than teenage rebellion run amok. They see parents as the root of the problem and their cooperation as essential to a real solution. “Parents have a responsibility to educate their children and to monitor their children,” said Albanese. “The students don’t know the intensity of what they’re dealing with,” he added.

“These are kids, some of them with straight A’s and applying to some of the best schools... kids make mistakes, that’s what adolescence is all about,” Kavanagh said. But, he added, kids depend on their parents, “the supervision end comes down to the parents.”

LaSalle does take serious steps to educate both its students and parents about the dangers of underage drinking and illegal drug use. All sophomores attend a retreat about making good choices. All students also participate in health class where they learn about the physical consequences of drinking and drug use. “We feel that early education and intervention is important,” said Edward Cronan, the Vice Principal of Student Life.

This week, as part of the response to the most recent underage drinking incident, students in grades 10-12 will participate in assemblies about making good decisions and a parents’ forum was held on Tuesday night to inform LaSalle Academy parents about the dangers facing their children.

For Kavanagh, the fight against underage drinking sometimes seems like an uphill battle. “They probably have a choice of going to a party every weekend,” he said of his students. But, he hopes, with the right amount of education and supervision, he hopes they realize that drinking doesn’t have to be a part of the equation. “The media today has so closely tied the idea of drinking and having a good time,” he said, “but, they can be doing other things and still having a great time.”

That is one of the important messages that the students and faculty who are involved with SADD try to impart. It is one of the most active clubs at the school and through events all year long its members work to prevent the wasted youths that have plagued Rhode Island for years.

“This is a very strange club to belong to because we’re only successful if nothing happens,” said Albanese. Regardless, his chapter has 120 members in all grade levels. Each year the students “adopt” a drunk-driving victim. This year it is a young girl who was killed by a drunk driver in Rhode Island. They collect information on the case and contact the victim’s family and use her story to help show LaSalle students the terrible consequences of bad decisions.

The club has another message, too – students can have just as much fun, if not more, when they decide not to engage in underage drinking. The school participates in a state-wide “mocktail” competition during which SADD chapters gather from across the state to prepare non-alcoholic holiday drinks with a theme relating to their adopted vitim. The “mocktails” are judged and awarded prizes based on taste and originality. This year’s competition will be held on December 13 and the LaSalle community is confident that their concoction, “Jillian’s Ginger Snap,” will bring their school the championship once again.

SADD spreads its message of good, clean fun throughout the year. In the fall they gave out red bracelets with the message “100% Me, 100% Drug Free” to fellow students during Red Ribbon Week. The week was also commemorated with activities during lunch that included using “Fatal Vision” goggles that mimic some of the visual effects of drinking and leave the wearer disoriented and unable to complete simple tasks. They also decorated a bulletin board as a memorial to their adopted victim and made a paper “Chain of Life,” adding links every day.

In the spring they will hold their annual “Prom Promise” week which includes prayer opportunity for students to sign a pledge refusing to “be a statistic” or “jeopardize my life or the lives of others.”

All of these activities, Albanese hopes, will stick with the students when they leave school, and like the 31 who were suspended, are confronted with opportunities to make decisions that could be good or bad. It’s not easy, he said, for the students to imagine themselves in the place of the victims or drunk drivers that SADD brings to speak to students. “Kids just simply cannot process the message that they are not invincible,” he said. But hopefully, with real consequences and punishments being meted out at LaSalle and across the state and continuing alcohol education, the message will begin to hit home.

“I just don’t think anyone ever thinks it will happen to them,” said Andrews, who is also a member of SADD. The suspensions will hopefully drive home an important point, added Matt Denehy, also a senior and member of SADD at LaSalle Academy, “I think it really shows the LaSalle community what can happen in situations like this.”

But, in the students’ view, this party and these suspensions were an isolated and uncommon event. “I don’t think that [underage drinking and partying] is a huge problem here,” said Denehy.