No teen wants to dial 911 at the risk of cutting a party short or being labled “loser,” but what is an underage drinker to do if a friend needs immediate medical attention?
The students of the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth’s Youth Advisory Council answered that question with a YouTube video to educate their peers about alcohol poisoning and a new law that eliminates the disincentive for underage drinkers to make that call.
“If you’re underage, it takes a lot of courage to make the call and break up a party,” YAC co-director Paula Singer said, explaining that kids are often worried about getting themselves in trouble at the same time over their own behaviors. “Before this law, I saw kids get cited after they made calls that basically saved someone’s life.”
Singer, a social worker who sits on Montgomery County’s restorative justice program Youth Aid Panel for teens cited for drinking, discovered the Good Samaritan law after she read a newsletter from Rep. Greg Vitali (D-166) in September.
Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan Law is similar to medical-amnesty laws that exist in states like New York and New Jersey and are popular at college campuses across the country. Meant to encourage partiers to call 911 if a friend who is under the influence needs medical attention, it exempts the underage caller from getting into trouble with the law if he or she has been drinking too. In Pennsylvania, the person who needs medical attention may still get cited for underage drinking. New Jersey's similar law protects the sick person as well.
Sponsored primarily by Sen. John Rafferty Jr. (R-44), the Good Samaritan Law passed in June 2011 as an amendment to an existing act that details underage-drinking offenses. Gov. Tom Corbett’s signed the law in late August.
Though a few college campuses, such as Susquehanna University, ran their own awareness campaigns, there weren’t any PSAs popping up on billboards, appearing on television or heard on the radio. Unlike texting while driving, the passage of the Good Samaritan Law – Senate Bill 448 – went on with little fanfare.
Once Singer discovered the Good Samaritan law, she began to ask around. When she called the Lower Merion Police Department, Singer said the prevention officer she spoke to wasn’t aware of the new provisions to the law.
With numerous laws coming out of Harrisburg at any given time, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said this can sometimes happen. Ferman added that police receive books with updated statues and go through mandatory training on new laws. The county also mentioned the new law in its monthly newsletter.
“Everything doesn’t stick every time, but eventually you hear it enough,” Ferman added.
Singer discussed the new law with the YAC, a panel of students from eight area high schools that encourages open dialogue about teen issues – such as underage drinking – with parents, school administrators and the community.
“We found out about the law from Paula, and from there we talked about what we wanted to do,” Lower Merion High School junior Hillary Hoffstein said. “One of the problems with [a party] situation is that everyone wants to do everything to avoid making the call.”
Nothing detrimental happened in the community, but students on the YAC felt compelled to inform their peers. Some of the YAC members said they’d been in situations where they were hesitant to call parents or 9-1-1 if a friend seemed like he or she drank too much. One student told a YAC member she put a seemingly unconscious girl in the shower to try to wake her up because she heard it was the right thing to do.
First, the YAC convinced Lower Merion and Harriton high schools, Agnes Irwin, Friends’ Central School and the Haverford School to administer a survey about the issue. After two months, 473 students responded. When asked what they would do if students were at a party and a peer appeared sick or passed out, 71 percent of students responded that they would dial 9-1-1, and among that breakdown, 25 percent would warn peers so they could avoid citations and 14 percent said they’d leave the party with the sick individual.
Harriton senior Arielle Herman said YAC use the survey to find out which barriers existed with the law and alcohol poisoning and the ways teens perceived both, and two were identified.
“If a kid is at a party, and their friend passes out, and they want to call the police or call 911 to save their friends, that could mean getting everyone else at the party in trouble, which is a big disincentive,” Herman said. “Also, the person who needs the medical attention doesn’t get immunity from the law.”
Sen. Rafferty said issuing a citation for the ill individual is at the discretion of police officers based on the information they’re given.
“Our thoughts were that we wanted to promote the good behavior of the person who called and stayed with the individual in need,” Sen. State Rafferty said in a phone interview.
From the survey, the students were able to figure out what type of message they needed to get across to their peers. With little funds and free access to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, YAC members Haydn Hornstein-Platt, Grant Schiller and Robbie Warshaw conceived a script for a video with the help of Lower Merion resident Art Levy, who has a background in marketing. Lower Merion students Adam Barr and Henry Grenier shot and edited the film.
A little more than a dozen students, including those not involved with the YAC, gathered at a house in Lower Merion on June 1 to film the fictional scenario in one night.
The video depicts a parentless house chockfull of teens drinking in the basement and carefree until a friend passes out and begins to vomit. Kids take him to the bathroom while discussing the law and who should dial 911.
To make the video very contemporary, a teen girl whips out her iPhone 4S to consult Siri: “My friend is drunk, like, really-sick-drunk. What should we do?”
“I hope you’re not driving anywhere,” Siri says without hesitation.
The video, which ends with a boy offering to make the call and instructing everyone at the party to leave to avoid citation, was released on YouTube June 6. By June 15, the video has had more than 700 views.
Between the more than 470 YAC survey participants and the video’s viewers, more than 1,000 youth have learned about the law.
Adults who’ve viewed the four-minute film say they were moved by the students actions on such a serious issue and not giving into peer pressure.
“It’s easy to follow the crowd, put your head down and hide,” Ferman said. “I credit their leadership and their initiative for being willing to address a tough issue like this head on.”
Rafferty commended the students for encouraging their peers to keep each other safe.
“It makes us all better people and a better society when you look out and help one another,” he added.
The students affiliated with the video hope it encourages peers to continue discussion, as well as prevent dire situations.
“We came from a place where we want to let you know what your legal rights are, make sure your friends stay safe and you won’t get in trouble,” Warshaw said. “I hope [the video] prompts more questions.”