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Changing the rite of passage
Changing the rite of passage

Teenage school leavers drink until they vomit, fight, try drugs and have unprotected sex during leavers week. These findings from a survey of leavers have prompted the lead researcher to call for governments and commercial providers to offer alcohol-free holiday packages for students celebrating the end of school.

Sandra Jones, director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, led a team which surveyed two groups of NSW school leavers at their main destination, the Gold Coast, in 2010. The first group was interviewed as they arrived at leavers about what they expected would take place, and the second group later about what actually happened.

Sixty per cent expected to have more than 10 drinks per night, 75 per cent to consume more than five drinks each night and 40 per cent to vomit from drinking.

Almost two-thirds expected to "hook up" (have some form of sexual activity) with someone, more than a quarter to have sex with someone they didn't know well or had just met, almost one-quarter to have sex with multiple partners and about one in five to have unprotected sex and sex with more than one person.

Just over one-quarter expected to try or use drugs and one in five to mix drugs with alcohol.

One in five thought they would get into a fight and one in 10 to damage or destroy public property.

For a substantial number of leavers, those things did happen. Eighty-six per cent drank more than five drinks per night, 64 per cent had more than 10 drinks each night, 35 per cent had vomited from drinking, 60 per cent hooked up with someone, 21 per cent had sex with someone they had just met or didn't know well, 19 per cent had unprotected sex and 14 per cent had sex with multiple partners.

About one in five reported that they had tried or used drugs other than alcohol (23 per cent) and mixed drugs with alcohol (19 per cent).

Professor Jones said most students did not perceive the events as positive but they were just accepted as things that happened during leavers. "It's almost like a side-effect of medicine," she said. "You go to schoolies (leavers) to celebrate with your friends, it is a rite of passage and these are some of the things that might happen." Professor Jones said the students were under huge pressure to be like everyone else.

But there was hope that things could be changed because of the fact that most did not actually like the behaviour they engaged in.

Professor Jones said another surprising finding was that only one in five of the leavers aged under 18 years said they thought their parents would be upset or angry if they knew they were getting drunk at leavers.

She said there was a message there for parents. "Kids look to their parents for advice, they really do," she said. "There is nothing wrong with saying to your kid 'Look, you are 17, I really don't want you to go and drink and I would be very upset if I knew you were drinking at schoolies, so let's work on another plan.'"

After the main survey, Professor Jones conducted a separate study at local NSW high schools, asking pre-leavers what their reaction would be if they were offered alcohol-free alternatives to the usual leavers week. The choices included a week's activity package that involved abseiling, hiking and canoeing and a pamper package that involved staying in a nice hotel, going to the movies and having special afternoon teas. "When we asked kids the question, a large proportion would rather do that," Professor Jones said.

"I think that is one of the big lessons for us. We know kids want to celebrate, it is the end of school, which is a huge milestone in their life, but we don't actually give them a lot of other productive options.

"Whether you go to the Gold Coast, or Rottnest, or wherever you go, you go to get drunk."

Professor Jones said society was expecting a lot of teenagers if it expected them to have the emotional maturity to come up with alternative ideas and make all the plans themselves.

"So they do what everybody did last year and what their older brothers and sisters did," she said.

Alcohol-free packages for leavers should be promoted early in the year, in about February or March, when the Year 12 students started making their plans for the end- of-the-year celebrations.