The invisible gatecrasher: why all teenagers are easy prey for drugs

Sunday Times, 01.11.15, Former HMC Chairman Bernard Trafford, headmaster of HMC leading independent the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, recalls how an overdose nearly killed a pupil at a party even though adults were there.

It is the phone call the parent of every teenager dreads. Police ring to say your 14 or 15-year-old has been taken to hospital after a suspected overdose at a party.

Schools do not welcome such incidents either. We hear about them the following Monday, the student off school recovering, friends — indeed, the whole year group — in shock, rumours rife.

No school is immune to such episodes: young people are at risk in unfamiliar territory, especially at a party, when they forget, or do not know, how to make good decisions.

Such events never emerge from a simple, single issue. Invariably alcohol is involved, and the teenager has lost sight of the boundary between sensible and risky behaviour long before drugs appear.

I remember Sean (not his real name), who a few years ago collapsed at a party and nearly died: fortunately the ambulance arrived in time to prevent total heart failure. It may not have been the pill he popped that caused the trouble. It could have been the large intake of neat spirit in a young body unused to it, particularly on an empty stomach. Nonetheless, children can never be sure what is in the pill or the powder they are given: but they still too often succumb to the temptation or pressure to try it.

Sean, keen to become slimmer and more attractive, had been starving himself, a borderline eating disorder: we had been watching him with some concern and were already in touch with his parents. Even so, they let him go to a 15th birthday party, feeling they had taken suitable precautions: he had agreed that they would collect him at midnight. Unaware that he had barely eaten for two days, they also had no idea that his friends had a bottle of vodka with which to “pre-load” before even arriving at the party.

The party itself seemed safe enough. The host parents were not irresponsible. They did not go out and leave a crowd of teenagers without supervision. Nor did they allow gate-crashers. They were at the door to welcome the young partygoers, then headed for another part of the large house with a few of their young guests’ parents and opened some wine, leaving the youngsters to it but always keeping an ear out.

They did not look out of the window, though, so they failed to spot the arrival of a car driven by someone no one knew but who was introduced as “one of Tim’s mates” and turned out to have “some stuff worth trying”. They realised something was wrong only when one of the girls started screaming because Sean appeared to have had some kind of seizure.

There is always a school connection: the friends all go to one or two local schools, and both parents and the press are quick to demand to know what the schools are doing about the problem. My school, like every other, takes these things seriously. We educate children thoroughly about the dangers of drink, drugs, sex, grooming and the online world.

We find students take personal, social and health education lessons seriously. They readily learn about evaluating risk. Examples are given and videos shown of young people putting themselves in serious peril. “I’d never be that stupid,” is a common response.

We also run sessions for parents about these dangers, which seem to multiply. I am sure we cause them sleepless nights. What are they to do? The most vigilant, protective parents can be worn down by furious arguments with teenagers demanding to be let off the leash, to be trusted.

Let’s not blame parents: raising a teenager is hard, all the more so for the single parent struggling to cope; for the couple, whether together or separated, who cannot apply family discipline consistently; for those who naively assume “it couldn’t happen to our daughter — she’s too young” or “too sensible”.

In theory, keeping safe should be clear-cut and obvious for intelligent young people with their eyes open. Sadly, when they find themselves in the real world, it is never so simple.

Had Tim’s mate, a few years older than Sean, approached him directly and asked, “Would you like some drugs?” he might have remembered the lessons about keeping safe. But it does not happen like that. It is slipped in quietly, skilfully, during a lively time when kids are boasting, trying to impress, doing all they can to fit in.

At a teenage party, that previously clear line between having fun and taking risks swiftly becomes fuzzy. When, abruptly, the certainties of classroom and home have gone, young people find themselves out on their own and in danger of serious harm.

There is no quick fix to this. But we have hope, if schools and parents just keep talking and listening to one another — and, above all, to our children.

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