Prom night. Fancy clothes and limos. Dinner and dancing. An evening that could stretch into a weekend at “the lake house.” 

In recent years, one popular Oak Park and River Forest High School prom tradition is to spend the weekend in Indiana or Michigan at someone’s vacation home or rental  –where it’s almost certain there will be alcohol.

Prom and alcohol go together almost like a corsage and boutonniere. 

According to a widely quoted survey by AAA, some 41 percent of teens admitted that it was “highly likely” that they or a friend would use drugs or alcohol on prom night. And approximately 53 percent who admitted to drinking during or after the prom said they consumed four or more alcoholic beverages.

Given those statistics, school districts all over the country and including OPRF now issue warnings and tips for students and parents on how to have “a safe prom.”

Why parents? Because parents wittingly and unwittingly enable the drinking. This comes backed by young people themselves.

Local youth have shared in interviews with those working to reduce underage drinking that they know parents who host underage drinking parties and parents who are willing to purchase alcohol for parties. Youth also have shared that a lot of parties are BYOB and parents know they are happening but choose to look the other way.

“Adults in the community are somewhat permissive,” said Kelly O’Connor, prevention outreach coordinator for Oak Park Township, citing information gathered in interviews and through the Illinois Youth Survey (IYS). Administered in schools biennially, IYS is a self-reported survey that gathers information about a variety of health and social indicators including substance use patterns and attitudes of youth throughout the state. 

O’Connor said in the survey, “kids would say [there is] easy access to alcohol in their own home or another person’s house; maybe being at a party and parents providing or maybe knowing alcohol is going to be there and not doing anything about it. There was somewhat of a permissive attitude, maybe it was letting the kids drink every now and then in their own home.”

In the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey, the latest available, 45 percent of Oak Park and River Forest seniors perceive that most adults in their neighborhood think it is acceptable for kids their age to use alcohol, a number that is consistently above state norms. The survey also revealed that 38 percent of Oak Park and River Forest eighth- through 12th-graders who had consumed alcohol within the past month reported getting it from their parents.

And it is not uncommon for parents, perhaps acquiescing to their teens’ expectations, to provide prom-goers with access to alcohol. 

In an interview with an Oak Park mom of two OPRF graduates, who did not want to be identified, she spoke firsthand about parental permissiveness around prom. She recalled a conversation she had a few years back with parents who had rented a house in Indiana for “prom weekend.” The parents indicated that alcohol would be available at the house and they were looking for other parents chaperone. They told this mom, “You just need to be there in case someone needs to go to the emergency room.” 

The mom was taken aback by this attitude. She told the parents that she would chaperone, “but there would be no alcohol” under her watch. Some parents, she said, know that “their kids had been drinking all school year.” Prom was just another chance to drink, so parents might as well acknowledge it.

“The get-real parents” have come to see prom as an opportunity to let their kids know they’re aware of teen culture, said Aimee Bates, program coordinator for the Oak Park and River Forest Workgroup for Positive Youth Development (PYD), which oversees an initiative to reduce alcohol consumption among minors. “It doesn’t mean that they’re bad parents, but they’re more focused on — regardless of whether they set a rule for alcohol or drugs — the fact that [their] kids are going to do it anyway. So they focus on the risk management part.”

Still, there are parents who may not be aware of the social hosting laws on the books in both villages, Bates said.

Oak Park’s social hosting ordinance states “It is unlawful for any person to host an event or gathering when the host knows or should reasonably know that an underage person: 1). Is consuming or will consume any alcoholic beverage or illicit drugs; or 2). Possesses any alcoholic beverage or illicit drug with the intent to consume it; and 3). The host fails or has failed to take reasonable steps to prevent possession or consumption by the underage person.”

The law further says that it is “also unlawful for any person to fail to take reasonable steps to prevent possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages or illicit drugs by an underage person at an event or gathering held at his or her residence or premises.” 

River Forest’s social hosting law has similar language.

While OPRF isn’t taking drastic steps such as holding proms on school nights and requiring next-day attendance as one upstate New York school decided to do several years ago, it has put together a nine-page prom packet. One page has specific tips for parents. One states, “Never allow underage drinking on your property.”

And last week, about a month before prom, the high school co-sponsored a “Safe and Sober Prom” discussion at Live Café on Oak Park Avenue. A small group of parents, some with seniors at OPRF and others whose children have graduated, came out.

“The lake house” question came up, said Barb Hickey, a member of both PYD and the District 90 River Forest Elementary school board. “It’s not a popular stand to take to say [to prom-goers], ‘You’re not going to the lake house.'”

When you consider “boys and girls and overnight. What can possibly go wrong?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically.

A big concern expressed during the discussion centered on post prom activities, Hickey said. “What we wanted to do was offer a chance for people to talk candidly about some of the challenges involved with the prom,” especially related to alcohol.

What Hickey said she would tell her own kids, now adults, “I do trust you, but I don’t trust the situation.”

Quite a few OPRF parents may find themselves saying that, too, as the lure of “the lake house” beckons again this year.

Substance Abuse


Way Back In

Network of Care

OPRFHS: Healthy Youth Peer Educators (HYPE)
• Ginger Colamussi, Prevention Social Worker, GColamussi@oprfhs.or, 708-434-3729

Alcohol Anonymous

• Young People AA
Grateful House
412 Wesley Ave

• Young at Heart Meeting (Age 16-30) Suburban Fellowship Center
7438 Harrison St., Forest Park IL

Family Anonymous
First United Church of Oak Park 848 W. Lake St.

Offers treatment for teens and adults who are diagnosed with substance use disorders.

Presence Health
Services for adolescents and famlies begin with a comprehensive substance abuse assessment.

Adolescent substance abuse treatment facility

Treatment Center provides affordable and effective Inpatient Programs and Day Treatment Programs.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Education, Prevention, and Early Intervention Program for Youth and Their Parents or Caregivers.

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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