One Year After Teen Tragedy--a Probing for Answers

Times Staff Writer

News of 17-year-old Joe Lutz's alcohol-related death swept La Canada Flintridge like brush fire last year, prompting grief, a lot of soul-searching and a vow by civic leaders and parents to stamp out teen drinking.

Lutz was killed when he fell from a second-story balcony at a large pay-for-admission party hosted by another teen-ager. Alcohol had been served there, and a coroner's autopsy determined that Lutz was legally drunk when he died.

One year and one month after the tragic incident, what lasting influence has the teen-ager's death had on the affluent, semi-rural bedroom community?

It depends on whom you ask.

City officials point out that, in the wake of Lutz's death, a mayor's Teen Advisory Committee and a Community Prevention Council were formed and an ordinance was passed that outlaws pay-for-admission parties. And, next week, the La Canada Flintridge City Council will consider appropriating $5,000 to get a teen social program off the ground and finance a citywide survey on adolescent drinking and substance abuse.

Drug Abuse Program

In addition, school officials said they will begin a districtwide program in the fall that teaches students to say no to drugs. It includes a $25,000 SANE (Substance Abuse and Narcotics Education) program financed by the city and will be taught by uniformed sheriff's deputies.

Officials in the sheriff's Crescenta Valley branch say there are fewer arrests for teen drinking this year than last, although statistics were not available. "There's parties, but there haven't been any problems," said Lt. David Kading.

Parents and some youths cite an increased awareness citywide that drugs and alcohol are dangerous.

"It used to be people thought we were these crusaders and we were just concerned with what our children were getting involved with," said Mary Freer of Parent Alert, a 5-year-old local group that works to prevent teen chemical abuse. Today, though, she said, "People respect what we're trying to accomplish. The city as a whole is more aware of the problems."

Brooke Frewing, 18, one of about 20 adolescents active on the Mayor's Teen Committee for the last year, said: "At parties, you don't see as much drinking going on."

But at least one teen-ager concludes that young people's attitudes toward partying remain the same since Lutz's death. In an essay that appeared in the last edition of La Canada High School's student newspaper, the Iliad, he wrote:

"Since that terrible night, I have seen no change in the way that things happen in La Canada. Almost every weekend, I can spot someplace that teen-agers are drinking up a storm. At school, you can hear someone bragging about (how) drunk they got, or how ill their best friend was last weekend. . . . That is pathetic! It simply shows the childish attitudes toward drinking that are so pervasive in La Canada High. Wake up! It's only a matter of time before tragedy strikes again. Is that what it is going (to) take, another death?"

The student's concern is echoed by about 15 educators, civic leaders, business people and parents who recently banded together to form the Community Prevention Council. They have asked that the city allocate $3,000 for a teen substance-abuse survey and $2,000 for teen social activities that exclude alcohol.

As part of the crackdown on teen drinking, La Canada High School officials sent one student home from the prom in the spring after deciding that he had drunk too much. The student was barred from taking part in graduation ceremonies, despite pleading his case before the school board, Principal Drew Meyer said.

"The school district has made it very plain that . . . the use of drugs and drinking on the school campus or at school activities will not be tolerated," said Irene Mendon, a school board member active on the Community Prevention Council. But Meyer said students still seem to associate alcohol with having fun.

The Mayor's Teen Committee, which formed last year after Lutz's death, continues to hold twice-a-month meetings and come up with sober alternatives for youths. Last year, some students proposed opening a clubhouse where teen-agers could gather for social events. Council members and community leaders vetoed the idea because, they said, the city has no appropriate facilities.

The teen committee's latest idea is to throw open the La Canada High School gymnasium twice a month for an evening of sports and social activities called "The Connection."

"We want to show that kids can have fun in other ways" besides drinking, Frewing said. She thinks the gatherings will be well-attended.

Meanwhile, Crescenta Valley sheriff deputies are taking a cautious stance toward teen partying.

Said Lt. Kading: "School's just out and we're waiting to see the result of all these campaigns."

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