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School Parties for Grads: the Safer Choice

Times Staff Writer

Near the Eiffel Tower and not too far from the Moulin Rouge, power saws buzzed a rhythmic song in the Irvine warehouse Wednesday.

Pieces of wood sawed by volunteer workers developed into backdrops of Paris. Sheets of canvas painted by volunteers became lovely scenes of Montmarte and the Champs Elysees.

Standing next to a Toulouse-Lautrec-style painting, Lori Warmington explained what it was all about. Mothers and fathers of Newport Harbor High School’s graduating seniors were working on the elaborate “Evening in Paris” decorations for the school’s graduation night party, June 20.

“Newport Harbor is one of three coastal high schools in Orange County that have these graduation parties,” she said. “We think they save lives, and we hope other high schools in Orange County adopt the idea.”

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Warmington, of Newport Beach, is public relations coordinator of this year’s graduation parties at Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor high schools. Each is having an all-night party for graduates June 20. Warmington told the story behind the parties:

“Laguna Beach High was the first, and it got the idea from San Marino High School (in Los Angeles County),” said Warmington. “The concept is to offer an all-night party for graduating seniors so that they will be all together --safe, in one location.”

Another purpose, said Warmington, is to keep the celebrating graduates away from booze and drugs. The parties provide so much fun, food and entertainment, she said, that the students accept a rigidly enforced ban on alcoholic beverages and drugs.

Parents at the three high schools said in interviews that before the school-sponsored “grad night parties,” seniors made their own party plans. Students would drive themselves to amusement parks and discotheques, and there would be side parties at homes or at the beach. Drinking, pot-smoking and use of heavier drugs inevitably took place, to various extents.

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“This gives the kids some place to go,” said Margaret Daniels, coordinator of the 1985 Laguna Beach High graduation celebration. “All they want to do is party. We’re giving them alternatives to six-packs of beer, and we’re giving them the party right there at their own school.”

Rules of the school-sponsored graduation parties are generally the same. Only seniors can buy tickets (Laguna Beach graduating seniors may bring underclass members as dates or dates from outside the school, but the other two schools restrict attendance to their own new graduates).

Security is strict, and the cost to a student is modest. Laguna Beach High grad night tickets cost $25 a person in advance, $30 at the door, said Daniels. “We figure the actual cost per student is at least $80, but our school support groups make up the difference,” she said.

Ticket Price Covers All

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The Corona del Mar grad night party is $20 a ticket; Newport Harbor High tickets this year are $35.

The ticket prices at all three schools cover food all night long, professional band music for dancing, casino-style gambling and prizes, and games and entertainment throughout the night.

In the entertainment category, the thinking is big, say the sponsors. For instance, Corona del Mar’s party has a circus theme and will offer rides on a live elephant. Newport Harbor High will have a real hot-air balloon hanging over its “Evening in Paris” landscape, and caricaturists will draw portraits--free of charge--of the Laguna Beach seniors.

Fred J. Koch, deputy superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education, on Wednesday praised the “grad night party” concept.

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“I’m for anything that promotes safety and saves lives,” he said. Koch said he knew of no other high schools in Orange County that have the on-campus, all-night graduation parties, but he said he hopes the idea spreads. “Any school can have something like this,” said Koch.

Daniels, of Laguna Beach, noted that the high school there started the parties in Orange County.

“This is our ninth year,” she said. “We’ve never had trouble with our parties, and we always have almost every senior attend. This year, we expect 209 of our 215 seniors will be attending. The theme will be ‘A Midnight Ride on the Orient Express.’ It’s going to be fabulous, and the kids this year, again, will see that you can have a great time without having to drink. The party starts at 10 p.m. and will end with breakfast at 5 a.m. Kids don’t spend a cent, once they enter. Everything is free, including all the food and games.”

‘Each Year They Get Better’

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JoAnne Rogers, co-chairing this year’s Corona del Mar grad night party, said, “This is our school’s seventh year with parties like this, and each year they get better. It’s really a fantastic event . . . something the kids say they remember forever. Our circus theme is even going to include a live tiger and a high-wire act.”

Said Bonnie McClellan, co-chair of the Newport Harbor High party this year: “This will be the third year for Newport Harbor. Our parents have been planning this since last October, and we started work here (in the Irvine warehouse) in April on decorations.”

Part of the fun for the grads, said McClellan, is their surprise at seeing the school grounds almost magically transformed for their special evening. “The kids pick the theme of the party,” she said, “but the decorations are secret until they arrive.”

The three high schools use both indoor and outdoor sites for the parties on the school grounds. The Newport Harbor High party, for instance, will have casino games in one gym, dance music in the second gym, and food booths and Paris skyline scenes in the courtyard.

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Merchants in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach have been generous and enthusiastic sponsors of prizes, say parents at all three schools.

Neighbors’ Complaints

Only one problem was mentioned in interviews with the parent-volunteer workers: Sometimes neighbors around the schools complain to police about the late-night, early-morning music and noise.

“Maybe if neighbors knew what this is all about, they’d be more forgiving,” said Rogers of Corona del Mar High.

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What it’s really about, the sponsoring parents said, is safety.

Sandy Montgomery, one of the Newport Harbor High mothers working Wednesday on the party decorations, summed it up:

“If we save just one life with these parties, it’ll be worth it.”


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