Our Independent School Drinking Problem

Spring 2016

By Debra P. Wilson

​Every spring, independent school administrators and parents around the country hold their collective breath through the final events of the school year. Prom, graduation, and other rites of passage bring great joy, but also the profound hope that tragedy does not strike due to a lack of judgment — particularly when it comes to alcohol. 

Unfortunately, there is good reason to worry — and not just in the spring. Research shows that not only is there a high rate of underage drinking but there are serious long-term effects to early drinking, and the combination of drinking and driving continues to be an issue among American teens.1


Independent schools are not alone in wrestling with alcohol issues, but they are often managing a more intense version of the problem. Affluent high school students are statistically more likely to engage in alcohol consumption.2 While the percentage of high school students in independent schools who report drinking (33.9 percent) is similar to the national norm (34.9 percent), the percentage of those binge drinking is higher. In 2013, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, indicated that 20.8 percent of high school students, both public and private, reported binge drinking at some time in the last 30 days, relative to 24.2 percent of students in independent schools alone.3
This is cause for concern. In recent years, there have been a number of studies researching the long-term effects of early drinking. Adolescents who drink have a higher likelihood of turning into adult alcoholics. They are also doing permanent damage to their brains. As reported in the Archive of Adolescent Medicine in 2006, the 47 percent of students who begin drinking alcohol before the age of 14 become alcohol dependent at some time in their lives, compared with 9 percent of those who wait at least until age 21.4 Nearly half (46 percent) of drinkers who developed alcohol dependence began drinking at age 16 or younger, although only one quarter of drinkers started by that age. These trends hold even when a family history of alcoholism is taken into account.
Further, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “persons who began drinking before age 14 were three times more likely than those who began drinking after age 21 to report ever driving after drinking too much, 53 percent vs. 18 percent, and four times more likely to report doing so in the past year, 13 percent vs. 3 percent. [According to the report,] respondents who began drinking before age 14 were seven times more likely than those who began drinking after age 21 to report ever being in a motor vehicle crash because of their drinking, 14 percent vs. 2 percent….”5
Beyond these sobering trends, what we know about the actual effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain has grown substantially in the last few years. At the University of Chicago, researchers studying the long-term effects of alcohol on animals revealed that early alcohol use “altered the activity of genes needed for normal brain maturation” and, as a result, “increased anxiety-like behaviors and preference for alcohol in adulthood.”6
The same study also revealed that alcohol consumption in early adolescence “causes lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex.” Overall, these findings suggest that “alcohol may negatively affect brain development in humans and have long-term consequences on areas of the brain that are important for controlling impulses and making decisions.”
Researchers have also examined the working memory of adult animals that binged on alcohol as adolescents. The more alcohol the lab rats consumed over the two-week period as adolescents, the worse their ability to tap into working memories to perform tasks as adults. This study suggests that “exposure to high doses of alcohol during adolescence could exert lingering, if not permanent, damage to selective brain fibers,” said Edith Sullivan, a Stanford University professor of psychiatry and behavior science, who studies the effects of alcohol on brain function. “This damage might underlie persistent compromise of cognitive functions involved in learning and render youth vulnerable for later development of alcohol use disorders.”7
Beyond the potential long-term physical and mental consequences that researchers now report, we also know that alcohol consumption has several immediate effects on students. While the data presented in the Mental Health in Independent School Communities report8 note the rise in risk behaviors for students who regularly engage in drinking, it does not capture what we know to be true in the higher education space: drinking rates also correlate with sexual assault, a topic that has been studied closely in colleges and universities.9Although this is data primarily from higher education, schools must be aware that, of those students reporting sexual assault, 44 percent of those assaults happen to students under the age of 18.10

Alcohol and Liability

The startling data in the Mental Health in Independent School Communities report is the continued enabling of adolescent drinking by parents and others of legal drinking age. Permissive drinking policies, we now know, lead to more drinking, particularly binge drinking. And binge drinking correlates with high-risk behaviors.
Why are some parents and guardians so permissive? For one, it’s likely they are not aware of the long-term physical consequences of these choices on their children and the others in their care. It’s also likely that they do not fully understand the liability they assume.
Regarding liability, some background helps. The drinking-age requirement is based on state law, but the states were heavily coerced into changing their drinking ages to 21 by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed in 1984. This act penalized states that did not raise their drinking ages to 21 by reducing their annual federal highway apportionment.
As a result, however, all states have laws that relate to the drinking age, including some states that have specific laws that do not limit underage drinking in family homes. Almost all states have either statutes or case law relating to social host liability for serving alcohol to guests, particularly those underage. Many states have criminal liability for serving underage drinkers as well. In addition, many states have also adopted statutes providing that adults serving underage drinkers are guilty of a misdemeanor. In some states, this can be the case even if the parents did not know that drinking was happening in their home.11
The National Conference on State Legislatures provides links and overviews to many of these statutes. However, readers should bear in mind that this resource does not provide for the contents of case law in the various states. Statutes are laws that are passed by state or federal governments. Case law develops through the courts and is sometimes harder to determine without the help of legal counsel. Case law, particularly civil law, developed around causes of action. For example, a very common cause of action related to alcohol abuse by minors is social host civil liability for negligently serving minors. In some states, this is a statute, in others it can be case law. Sometimes it is both.
Social host liability varies among the states. Historically, the basis for lawsuits in this area is negligence. When a plaintiff brings a claim of negligence against an individual, the plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant had a duty to do or not do something, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach proximately caused the harm to the plaintiff. Proximate cause means that the harm can be reasonably traced back to the action, or lack of action, for which the defendant was responsible. In law schools, this is considered the “but for” test — “but for” the defendant’s action or inaction, the harm would never occur.
In many states, where an adult is found to have knowingly provided alcohol to a minor, and the minor does harm (particularly through the operation of a vehicle), the serving adult is considered negligent. This negligence may be found one of two ways: states may come to this conclusion through case law over time or it may be set by statute. For example, in California, state statutes provide that just serving an individual alcohol and having the individual harm someone is not considered proximate cause to trigger liability (and, specifically, that the actual drinking of the alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause). However, the statute provides an exception to this rule: “a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, in which case… the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.”12 In other words, in California, the legislature has specifically stated that serving alcoholic beverages to individuals under 21 may be considered proximate cause to an injury or death negligence claim.
These kinds of statutes are social host laws. The majority of states have similar laws that expose adults serving underage drinkers to liability for any damage those drinkers may cause. This can include claims from either the underage drinker or his or her parents.
Even when parents have not provided alcohol to their children, if the children cause damage, the parents can also find themselves facing a civil law suit. Before the age of 18, students are minors. In most states, parents are liable for the damages caused by their children. This liability can be limited by statute, such as limited to willful or malicious property damage, or it can include negligence (as it does in Hawai‘i).13 The Alcohol Policy Information System provides maps and charts to help you determine the laws in your state.

School Policies

Years ago, schools had fairly clear disciplinary policies related to drug and alcohol use. Students were often suspended on the first “strike” and often expelled for later offenses. Some schools had a “zero tolerance” policy that led to immediate expulsion for any kind of drug or alcohol use at or related to a school event. The side effects of these policies were several fold:
  • Staff members who saw students potentially struggling with alcohol or drug use were unable to do anything about it because school policies did not support interventions that would allow the students to stay in the school community.
  • Students struggling with alcohol or drugs and “caught” by the school were cut off from the very supportive community that may have helped them through this time.
  • Finally, separating students from the school did nothing to address the wider issue of substance abuse by the student body other than drive the problem further underground.
In recent years, though, many schools have moved away from such policies. In these schools, support for students and families that seek appropriate help and counseling has replaced immediate expulsion from the school. Indeed, some schools require follow-up counseling, drug testing, or other steps in order for the student to remain a part of the community. These methods ensure that the student gets sufficient support to work through his or her substance abuse. Schools will still expel students who are repeat offenders and appear unable to change their habits, but these newer policies reflect a more holistic approach. As schools reflect on the life skills, traits, and characteristics that make up the whole child, they are embedding these coaching, counseling, and mentoring approaches into school polices. Embracing the whole child in this way allows the school to open conversations with students to deter drinking and other substance abuse, but it also requires that the school train staff — all staff — sufficiently to manage these conversations and create systems that can support students who need help.
Some school leaders may worry that this change would somehow encourage students to drink if they felt that the school is “soft” on discipline. On the contrary, at least some research has shown that what matters to students is whether the school actually enforces its policy, even if the school does not automatically expel students for infractions.14 (See sample policy in sidebar).
Schools should note, however, that any evidence that a student may be providing drugs or alcohol to other students, particularly on campus, may trigger state and federal reporting and other laws. Many, if not most, schools will consider these activities to be expellable offenses. Indeed, such students can cause significant harm to others, particularly in boarding school environments where students are under the care of the school 24 hours a day.

Managing Parent Behavior

Parent behavior can be harder to curtail than student behavior. The current independent school parents are among the last to have grown up in an era before the drinking age was raised to 21, leading some to think that the current age limit on senior-year students in particular is overly restrictive. In recent years, school administrators have reported more calls from parents asking the school to intervene with parents who develop a reputation for either serving alcohol to underage students, providing locations for student drinking, or otherwise facilitating this behavior. Most schools do not take on the duties of managing adult behavior unless that behavior affects community life. This is often the same triggering factor for managing the off-campus behavior of students. Schools that do take the step to talk with parents or take action to remove the family from the school community often rely on either a parent code of conduct or other policies that outline expected behavior from parents. Schools need to work with legal counsel before going down this road. They do not want to inadvertently accept a duty to monitor all parent behavior, thereby inadvertently exposing the school to the very liability they are trying to limit by talking with the parents.
The issue underscores the importance of including parent conversations in the school’s overall plan to address substance abuse. Students who have heard about the risks of drug use from parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use them.15 Parents are also often unaware of the true risks, those that are actual civil and criminal liability, but also what the current research shows to be the long-term effect of alcohol and drug use on developing brains. While schools report that parents who attend these events are often the ones who do not need them, schools have begun to use other means of gaining better attendance, including requiring attendance in order for students or parents, or both, to participate in school events. Schools looking for more information and training for parents might try Parents360Plus, a program developed by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Deterring Drinking Behavior

Obviously, the best way to manage substance abuse of any kind is to take as many initial steps as possible to keep students from engaging in it in the first place. There are many school-based programs that schools have adopted, and many schools have built their own program that suits their community. Any program should begin fairly young. Students tend to start experimenting with alcohol beginning at age 10 through 14.16 While programs should continue after those ages, the early conversations about alcohol are fundamental. Successful intervention programs:
  • are theory driven, with a particular focus on the social-influences model, which emphasizes helping students identify and resist social influences (e.g., by peers and media) to use alcohol;
  • address social norms around alcohol use, reinforcing that alcohol use is not common or acceptable among youth;
  • build personal and social skills that help students resist pressure to use alcohol;
  • use interactive teaching techniques (e.g., small-group activities and role plays) to engage students;
  • use same-aged students (i.e., peer leaders) to facilitate delivery of the program;
  • integrate additional components to connect other segments of the community (e.g., parents) to the program;
  • are conducted across multiple sessions and multiple years to ensure that students and schools receive an adequate “dose” of prevention;
  • provide adequate training and support for program facilitators (i.e., teachers, students); and
  • are both culturally and developmentally appropriate for the students they serve.17
Schools looking at intervention programs should also consider using social norming through influential students in the community, particularly through mentoring or other similar structures. Recent research suggests that the use of key influential students, particularly in middle school, can significantly affect school culture.18 Freedom from Chemical Dependency uses this approach in some of its programming and has written about this sort of intervention for NAIS.
Whichever program your school uses, it should fit within the overall culture and mission of your school and your overall work in developing the health and well-being of each student. Teaching students to understand, limit, and manage their relationships with the substances that they will be offered time and again throughout adolescence and adulthood is part of growing up and becoming an adult.


1. Jessica Bliss, “Temptation High for Drunk Driving in Prom, Grad Season.” USA Today. April 4, 2013.
2. Suniya Luthar, “The Problem with Rich Kids.” Psychology Today. November 5, 2013. See Also, Suniya S. Luthar, Shawn J. Latendresse, “Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being,” Current Directions in Psychological Sciences. August 2007.
3. Rosemary Baggish and Peter Wells, “Binge Drinking and Independent School Students,” Independent School, Vol. 75, number 3, Spring 2016, p. 20.
4. Ralph W. Hingson, Timothy Heeren, and Michael R. Winter, “Age at Drinking Onset and Alcohol Dependence: Age of Onset, Duration, and Severity,” JAMA Pediatrics, July 1, 2006, Vol. 160, No. 7.
5. NHTSA, “Age of Drinking Onset, Driving After Drinking, and Involvement in Alcohol Related Motor Vehicle Crashes.” January 2001.
6. University of Illinois at Chicago, “Adolescent Drinking Affects Adult Behavior Through Long-lasting Changes in Genes,” Science Daily. 2 April 2015.
7. Society for Neuroscience, “Heavy Drinking in Adolescence Associated with Lasting Brain Changes, Animal Study Suggests,” Science Daily, 28 October 2014.
8. Baggish and Wells, p. 20.
9. Everfi, “The Relationship Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault on Campus.” Insight Report. August 2013.
10. Robin Hattersley Gray, “Sexual Assault Statistics,” Campus Safety. March 5, 2012. Citing Department of Justice. See also Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) statistics.
11. Associated Press, “Teen Drinking Liability Laws Leave Parents Open to Lawsuits, Fines and Jail Time,” December 30, 2011. 
12. California Civil Code §1714
13. Wikert Matthiesen and S.C. Lehrer, “Parental Responsibility Laws in All 50 States.”
14. Doree Armstrong, “School Policies Reduce Student Drinking – If They’re Perceived to Be Enforced,” UW Today. July 9, 2013.
15. Freedom from Chemical Dependency. "From Summer Drinking to School Rules: Prevention Basics." Prevention Source e.Journal. 
16. Melissa H Stigler, Emily Neusel, and Cheryl L. Perry, “School-Based Programs to Prevent and Reduce Alcohol Use Among Youth,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Research & Health, Volume 34, Issue Number 2, 2011.
17. Ibid.
18. Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Hanna Shepherd, and Peter M Aronow, “Changing Climates of Conflict: A Social Network Experiment in 56 Schools,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 113, No. 3, January 19, 2016.

Debra P. Wilson

Debra P. Wilson is president of NAIS. Previously, she was president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools and general counsel for NAIS.