Students Resurrect Days of Canteens ‘to Keep Out of Trouble’
The skirts are shorter now. And the dancing is rowdier.
Where cardigan-clad couples once partied politely to the moderate strains of Herman’s Hermits, adolescent boys wearing Bermuda shorts now slam dance in a recreational ritual resembling a street brawl during which participants slam into each other at full force. And where chaperones used to keep youths at bay, the most visible adult presence now is an empty squad car parked prominently on the lawn outside.
“There was a need for a place to go,” said Dalton Kaufman, 17, a senior at Wilson High School in Long Beach.
So last week he and more than 500 fellow students resurrected a Wilson tradition and created a model that, despite the criticisms of some attendees, they hope will be emulated throughout the school district. It used to be called Bruin Den, a weekly Friday night dance and a popular place to go after football games. Now they call it simply DANCE, an acronym for Drug Alternative Nights and Counseling Events.
“It’s better than driving around doing nothing,” Kaufman said.
Said Jason Wagers, 16, a varsity football player: “Last year after the games we’d go to parties and get buzzed. Now we’re just here drinking seltzer and eating pizza. This will keep us out of trouble; it’s a clean, free time.”
The idea of providing high school students with a drug- and alcohol-free place to spend their Friday nights is not new. For several years local churches have sponsored a program called Open Door/Fifth Quarter featuring a series of after-football rallies each fall. Last year the program ran into trouble with the Long Beach Unified School District after school officials learned that uniformed cheerleaders had been routinely performing at the functions, representing their schools in what amounted to religious rallies.
Arguing that the arrangement violated the constitutional separation of church and state, the district forbade cheerleaders from participating as organized groups. The action was protested by parents, many of whom accused the district of not providing enough alternatives of its own.
This year’s alternative grew out of the concern of a group of Wilson parents at the high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse among teen-agers. National and state figures indicate that it is reaching epidemic proportions. And in a recent poll of Long Beach 11th-graders, 15.7% said they had used marijuana or cocaine at least once in the preceding month.
“The whole purpose is to give them an alternative to some of the parties that are going on,” said Susan Ingram, the mother of a Wilson junior. “My feeling was that we needed to have the old canteens back.”
Begun in the late 1950s, those canteens--which ultimately existed at all five high schools in Long Beach--were popular Friday-night gathering places. But by the late 1960s, attendance had begun to decline. Influenced by the anti-authoritarianism of the period and more interested in attending unsupervised gatherings far from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, the teen-agers stayed away in droves.
“They started looking for things that were a little bit more spontaneous and that they had a little more control over,” said Ed Eveland, the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary education. As a result, he said, the canteens were scrapped in the early 1970s.
The new Wilson “canteen” is in the same building as the old: the Recreation Park Community Center, a facility owned by the city’s Recreation Department across the street from the school.
But unlike the old days when activities were planned by adults, Eveland said, the current series of gatherings is being planned entirely by students with a minimum of adult supervision. “They’re getting involved,” he said, “because drugs and alcohol are so bad that we’re about to lose a generation of kids. I think they realize that to get themselves out of this quagmire, they have to help themselves.”
After an initial meeting that drew only six students, Kaufman said, the committee organizing the events has now grown in membership to about 100. He is president.
Armed with $10,000 from the district, free use of the facility, a host of private contributions and the expected income from various fund-raising activities, the group is planning a series of weekly parties ranging from a Valentine’s dance to an elaborate Hawaiian luau. Beginning this week, Kaufman said, students attending the dances will be able to view themselves on a giant TV screen featuring video tapes recorded the same week on campus.
Not everyone, however, was entirely pleased with the committee’s first effort recently, which, among other things, featured a rousing appearance by the drum section of the school band.
The wild antics of the slam dancers, for instance, led to complaints by some who found their dance style overly violent. Midway through the evening, a large group of black students commandeered the stage to give a rhythmic rapping performance as an alternative to what they described as the “white music” being offered by a band. And several revelers said they smelled alcohol on the breaths of others at the party.
“The main objective was to have people sober,” said Suzanne Egan, 16, “and a lot aren’t.”
Organizers said they were unaware of anyone being intoxicated at the event. Although booze and drugs were not allowed on the premises, they said, participants were not searched at the door. And anyway, they said, there was little they could do to prevent people from drinking beforehand if they were determined to do so.
“The point is that we set up a place where the pressure isn’t on,” said committee member Dan Deeble, 15.
Several at the party said they were pleased with the results.
“This is an excellent kickoff,” Kaufman declared when it was over. “I hope the rest are as good.”
Said J. J. Fonby, 17: “This is great. You don’t have to go home with a hangover.”