Rite of passage at all cost

By Teuila Fuatai

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It's a rite of passage for thousands of senior Kiwi high school students. But with another school ball season underway, police and school leaders have issued warnings to rein in alcohol abuse and prevent celebrations turning to tragedy. Teuila Fuatai reports.

David Gaynor would have turned 20 this year.

The Auckland teen, who died on the night of his school ball, was only 17 when he fell to his death from a motorway overbridge in June 2011.

Hours earlier, the King's College student had been ejected from his school's annual winter ball after teachers suspected he was either drunk or under the influence of drugs.

The dejected teen was picked up early by his father and taken home but found badly injured later that night and died in hospital.

His case, undoubtedly one of the worst ever to be associated with school formals, sent many school communities into panic mode - the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

A coroner's report, released last year, confirmed the presence of illicit drugs and alcohol in the 17-year-old's system.

Forensic test results showed the teen's blood-alcohol level was 132 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood when he died - more than 1 times the legal adult driving limit.

It was also revealed he had consumed alcohol at two pre-ball events, both of at which his parents were present.

His death - referred to as the "last straw" by one Auckland principal - was a harsh reality check for many Kiwi parents and schools.

And while teenage drinking, partying and even drug use is not a new problem, school ball functions often present a unique dilemma for communities.

For many parents and students, the event is a rite of passage for senior pupils.

Planning can start months in advance for the perfect outfit and many students will spend hundreds of dollars on hairstyling, makeup and limousine hire. Then there's the quest for the right partner.

Educators agree that school balls mark an important milestone for students. However, troublesome behaviour - almost always associated with pre and after formal functions - often mars what should be a happy celebration for families and schools.

Several schools have banned senior formals after problems on school ball nights.

In 2010, Auckland's Rangitoto College - one of New Zealand's largest schools - cancelled its traditional mid-year ball after an explicit ban on post-ball parties was ignored the previous year.

At King's College, no mid-year school balls have been held since the 2011 death of David Gaynor.

Instead, the school's focus is on its end-of-year graduation event, headmaster Bradley Fenner has said.

And while most problems during school ball season stem from students in the Auckland region, both police and the Secondary Principals' Association (SPANZ) warn harmful behaviour can occur anywhere - especially when alcohol is mixed in with masses of partying teens.

SPANZ president Tom Parsons, principal of Picton's Queen Charlotte College, Marlborough Sounds, says parents need to be extra vigilant during their children's formal season.

"Kids don't get the booze and pre-load without some adult involvement.

"There's [also] very few functions post-ball that don't have parental involvement somewhere."

Staff and principals, "no matter how well intentioned" they are, are powerless to enforce school rules at private functions which occur independently to a school ball or formal, he stresses.

"Most principals can guarantee students will be sober at the [school] function."

Common screening techniques include senior staff greeting all students and their partners as they enter.

Some schools also use breath testers to test students suspected to be under the influence. Those who turn up in an unacceptable state are asked to leave.

As in David Gaynor's case, most principals will contact parents asking that they pick up their child from the event, Mr Parsons says.

But despite numerous precautions taken by schools around their ball functions, some students and parents continue to push boundaries.

Past experiences around boozy after-parties, which often take place at secret locations and are supervised by parents, have forced schools to take a hard line on the initial formal event, Mr Parsons says.

Reports of post-ball parties featuring scantily-clad cage dancers, fights between partygoers and "vomit rooms" have also tarnished school ball events.

Police involvement has also been necessary after several after-ball functions spiralled out of control.

May 2010: Police and liquor licensing inspectors raided the Pakuranga College after-ball function in Auckland. The event was held in an empty warehouse and cost $55 to attend. A van-load of alcohol was removed.

September 2009: Police prosecute an events management company for allegedly supplying alcohol to minors at school after-balls.

June 2009: Police were called to Whangarei's Kamo High School after-ball, after several people were stabbed in a violent brawl. About 200 youths reportedly crashed the private function.

September 2007: Police raise concerns after revelations that West Auckland's Massey High School after-ball function was hosted by a gang.

This ball season, police are discouraging any large-scale post-ball parties.

In Tasman, police have surveyed local schools asking for details of their formal functions and of possible post-formal events. Auckland police have written to the region's high schools warning parents and students against mass, alcohol-fuelled after-ball parties.

A police spokesman stresses all ball-goers should enjoy themselves, but not at the expense of their safety or the wellbeing of others.

"Police around the country have good relationships with their local schools and will work to assist them as appropriate, whether initiated by the school or proactively by police."

Organisations found to be responsible for "unsanctioned pre and post-ball gatherings, which too often can lead to significant disorder and other alcohol-related offending" may be prosecuted and fined by police, the spokesman says.

Parents recommend hosting small gatherings of friends with families instead of large after-ball events.

Auckland's Kristin School has even chosen to hold an official, alcohol-free after-ball function following its school formal at the weekend.

Clinical psychology expert Nicola Gavey, who has performed research into after-ball functions, says hype around school balls links into New Zealand's consumer-driven culture.

Associate Professor Gavey's research, which focused on students from central Auckland schools, found pupils were often encouraged to spend up large on their looks for the evening.

"I was very struck by the pressure on girls to engage in beautification practices."

Professional grooming and expensive frocks are part-and-parcel of the night's experience for many girls, she says.

Excited female pupils have been known to fork out hundreds for an outfit they might wear only once at their school formal.

Specialist hair and make-up services also add to the costs.

School ball tickets, which can be more than $100 each, add to the evening's bill.

One Auckland high school recently hit headlines after banning from its ball all pupils whose parents had not paid the annual voluntary school fee.

Avondale College parent Tony Hunt, whose daughter is a Year 13 pupil at the school, spoke out on the policy.

Mr Hunt bought his daughter a $110 ball ticket but does not want to pay the $175 annual school donation.

"Every dollar counts. But more to the point is that they advertise it as a donation," he commented.

"Therefore it is voluntary - and the school ball is an important event for the kids."

Avondale College Board of Trustees chairman Kevin Glubb says while school donations are voluntary, they heavily subsidise the school ball event which is an extracurricular activity.

Only those who pay the donation can attend. In cases of financial hardship the school will make exceptions, he says.


Spotlight on after-ball parties

Party organisers who serve up booze at commercially run post-ball events could face prosecution.

New Zealand's Health Promotion Agency (HPA) is warning event organisers that serving alcohol to minors at large-scale after-ball parties is illegal.

"While the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 allows under-18s to drink alcohol at a private social gathering - usually a private home or family gathering - it does not allow minors to be served alcohol at events such as these commercially run after-balls, where students purchase tickets which cover the cost of the alcohol," said HPA general manager policy, research and advice Andrew Hearn.

After-ball parties, which are often promoted as "all-you-can-drink events", also encouraged irresponsible binge drinking, he said.

Simply put, such events were illegal and put many minors at risk, he said.

"The recently passed Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 will make it an offence to supply alcohol to anyone under 18 without the express permission of a parent or caregiver, even at a private social gathering," Dr Hearn said.

The new provision will come into force in December.

 

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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