Fantasy Parties Keep Grad Night Safe and Sober

Times Staff Writer

'The No. 1 reason for doing this is you're saving lives.'

--Lori Warmington

At Newport Harbor High School, graduates will arrive at their all-night party via a suspension bridge over a moat and then proceed into the gymnasium, which will have been transformed into the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

At Corona del Mar High School, graduates will pass by two smoke-billowing volcanoes before entering a "Pacific island fantasy" that will include fake palm trees and real hula girls.

At Laguna Beach High School, the theme and details of this year's grad night party are being kept secret. But if past years are any indication, it undoubtedly will be as elaborate as the Arabian Nights-themed party a few years back, in which the auditorium lobby became a sheik's tent complete with hanging veils, floor cushions and belly dancers.

$15,000 Budgets

It would be difficult for any senior to pass up any of these elaborate, dance-till-dawn graduation parties, each of which is budgeted at upward of $15,000.

And that's the point: to throw a party that is so appealing to graduates that they will want to celebrate their big night in a safe and sober atmosphere instead of creating their own parties, which, if fueled with alcohol or drugs, could end in tragedy on the road.

"The exciting part about this for me--and this is the fifth year I've worked on a grad night--is that you get such goose bumps to see how much fun these kids are having, and they're not out drinking and driving in a car," said Deanna Tichy, a parent who is working on Corona del Mar High's grad night party.

Newport Harbor, Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach high schools are in the vanguard of a rapidly growing number of Orange County high schools that are holding "safe and sober" graduation parties.

Last year, six Orange County high schools held all-night parties on campus. This year the number has grown to 19, the increase attributed primarily to the work of the year-old Grad Night Foundation, whose goal is to spread the idea of "safe and sober alternative graduation celebrations" to all county high schools.

The foundation was co-founded by Lori Warmington and Judy Hemley, both of whom are Newport Beach mothers of teen-agers.

"The No. 1 reason for doing this is you're saving lives," said Warmington, whose son, Drew, graduated from Newport Harbor High in 1985.

"According to the Highway Patrol, there are three times during the year that you have the most potential traffic injuries, accidents and fatalities: Memorial (Day) weekend, New Year's Eve and graduation.

"Actually, it's a real problem time from May on because of proms. But graduation in particular is a time to celebrate, and drugs and alcohol are usually a part of that--and usually a deadly part of it, because it gets them on the road."

The idea of safe and sober alternative graduation parties has received the support of many school boards, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), the California Peace Officers Assn., the California School Nurses Assn., the California Highway Patrol and local law enforcement agencies.

Kent Stoddard, community relations officer for the Newport Beach Police Department, said: "We're obviously in favor of the program because it does keep the high school graduates in one location, and they're not out drinking and driving, and therefore they're not putting themselves and other persons at risk."

On Orange County highways during May and June of 1986, the CHP reported one fatal accident and 46 injury accidents involving teen-agers 15 to 18 years old who had been drinking. In the same time period, there were 10 fatal accidents and 248 injury accidents among 19-to-25-year-olds.

(One of the goals of the Grad Night Foundation is to have each city's police department in the county provide similar statistics for streets, Warmington said.)

Karen Krone, vice president of the Orange County MADD chapter, said that, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 8,000 teen-agers nationally die each year in car accidents caused by drunk driving.

'Sober Graduation'

The MADD chapter has distributed more than 2,000 of the CHP's "Sober Graduation: Make It to Your Future" bumper stickers to graduating high school seniors. The group is also working with tuxedo shops in the county, which have agreed to attach cards to rental contracts bearing the message, "Sober Graduation: Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk."

"Basically, the foundation's goal is to have no deaths, injuries or arrests on graduation night by 1990 in Orange County and no deaths involving kids during graduation celebrations in the state of California by 1996," Warmington said.

Foundation members are working with other parent groups throughout the state that are interested in the idea. About 100 schools out of about 2,000 private and public state high schools hold all-night graduation parties, she said.

Ultimately, the foundation will join with "groups already doing the same thing in other states and network this concept across the country," she said.

Disneyland Credited

Warmington said that Disneyland, which has offered high school grad nights since 1961, "has done an absolutely outstanding job of offering a substance-free place to celebrate graduation."

But because of the large number of high schools--80 to 170 schools on each of Disneyland's eight grad nights--many graduates are unable to attend on their actual graduation day, Warmington said.

"So there is a tremendous need for kids to have something to do the night of their graduation, because that's kind of an explosion waiting to happen, because there is so much alcohol and drugs available."

In Orange County, Valencia High School in Placentia is credited with being the first to hold an all-night graduation party on campus. The tradition, which began in the early '60s, was born out of tragedy: Two seniors died in car accidents the night of the senior prom.

"The parents, concerned about wanting a safe way for students to spend graduation, initiated it," said activities director Betty Ann Lawson.

Since then, she said: "We haven't had any tragedies at all. Other times of the years, yes, but not this."

Created by Parents

As at other schools, the grad night party at Valencia High is being planned and created by the parents, who build the elaborate sets and props to decorate the gymnasium. To pay for the party, parents hold fund-raisers and help recruit merchants to donate food and door prizes.

Lawson would not reveal the theme of this year's party, which is budgeted at $6,000 to $10,000, but previous themes have included the Roaring '20s, Deep South and Circus.

The party, which will run from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., has been so popular over the years, Lawson said, "we almost always have 95% participation. I mean it's the 'in' thing to do."

At Newport Harbor High School, which began holding the all-night party five years ago, Principal Thomas Jacobson said attendance is "almost 100%."

Before that, he said: "We went to Disneyland and about half participated and the other half went their own way. Our thrust was to come up with something that would be more appealing to a larger segment of the senior class."

Motivated by Tragedy

Like Valencia's, Newport Harbor High's decision to begin the all-night parties was motivated by tragedy.

"Unfortunately," Jacobson said, "for about three years in a row prior to beginning this program we had had a couple of deaths and serious injuries caused by drinking and driving either on grad night or the day before or after. So that focused attention on the fact that we had to come up with something that kept them busy and safe on grad night.

"Even then, though, there are no guarantees. But at least it's a major effort."

Corona del Mar High School joined the all-night party bandwagon about seven years ago, Principal Dennis Evans said.

"The parents felt that if they were going to bring it back on the campus, they would have to make it special to the extent that the kids wouldn't feel shortchanged on their grad night," Evans said. "There was a conscious effort to make it an extravaganza they'd remember."

Over the years, party themes have ranged from Wild West to Hollywood, he said. "It's really been just a major transformation of the campus. It always amazes me. I think it's really a tremendous labor of love by the parents."

Tales Passed Down

At Corona del Mar, as at other high schools, tales of previous grad nights are passed down from class to class like hall lockers.

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