It's a muggy Saturday in Santa Monica, and a teenager no older than 16 is throwing back shots at a party with the boozy enthusiasm of a frat boy. His friends hover around in a semi-circle, drunkenly cheering him on as he downs one, then another, then another before he starts to get dizzy.
Pouring the liquor is an older, bearded man whose presence at this teen hang is unsettling, to say the least. But nobody cares, likely due to the empty bottles of Grand Marnier, Patron, and prescription pills strewn about the room. Things soon turn ugly when two boys get into a fistfight. After that, someone passes out. Another stops breathing.
Watching this all unfold is a group of suburban parents, off to the side of the room behind a long piece of masking tape. If you're wondering what they're doing at a high school party, it's because it's a ruse—nobody here is drunk, no one needs an ambulance, and that weird old guy pouring shots is just an actor. We're at a "Reality Party"—a Scared Straight!-esque program where parents get an inside view into exactly what their kids are up to behind closed doors.
Reality parties are a product of Straight Up, a Ventura County, California-based organization that seeks to bolster awareness of youth substance abuse and peer pressure. "Parties" feature students acting out fake underage drinking and drug plots for local moms and dads. Straight Up has been producing them since 2007, mostly in Santa Monica and the surrounding LA area, but as far away as Oklahoma, too.
Like any good youth group, Straight Up also has a related series of schlocky informational videos online, like one where a teen swallows so much Xanax she gets a random guy's name tattooed on her back, and another where a girl goes on a cocaine bender inside her own high school. The clips are alarmist, poorly acted, and kind of amazing—so much so that I decided to see these mock scenarios performed live.
While it's easy to assume the "parties" are a ploy to promote a straight-edge lifestyle, Straight Up founder Katherine Kasmir is quick to clarify that they're not all about abstinence. "We don't want parents to lock their kids up," said Kasmir. "It's about making parents have better conversations with their kids."
Another thing Reality Parties are about? Involuntary recall of the dumb shit you yourself did in high school. As I watched the group, I couldn't help but think about that time I stole my sister's leftover Bat Mitzvah liquor for an enormous party I threw with a few of my friends (when my mom and dad found out two years later, they were pisssseddddd), or the night my friend's mom called the cops after she caught us taking bong rips in his basement. These moments were sadly absent from the Reality Party I attended, but they felt like they weren't; teen drinking and drug use may be in decline, but youthful stupidity is eternal.
The parents present at my Reality Party agreed: Nothing they saw was very shocking. Kids today, as it turns out, really do suck at partying.
"Honestly, things [like this] were happening back when I was a kid," said Rona, a Santa Monica mom. "They did mention that it's increasing and there is more availability of drugs, so that's a little alarming. But what was actually happening was not that surprising."
That was the consensus from the other parents who witnessed teens fake-chug beer, fake-talk about where to get a fake ID, and fake-heckle a neighbour who fake-threatened to call the cops. Even the most shocking moment of the "party"—when the group entered a dark room and listened to audio of students discussing unwanted sexual encounters—seemed to elicit a "We already know about this" response.
The mood changed later on, though, during a debrief session with a police officer and experts from youth drinking and addiction programs CLARE Foundation and Westside Impact Project. There, the group honed in on the most pressing issue: how to have a non-corny discussion with your kids about substance abuse and peer pressure. The panel members stressed an honest approach, which struck at the heart of what makes parenting so hard (and why these programs are necessary in the first place); it's hard to talk to kids, and especially hard to be straight up with them. "I can't tell my kid to behave well in this environment," said one mother. "It's not going to happen."
Later, the conversation delved into the Hot New Drugs that kids are into these days:
Cop: "When we were growing up, there was alcohol, weed, and cocaine. Now the drugs available to these kids are ridiculous. You have ecstasy, meth... and there's this new thing called purple drink."
Mom: "Wait, what's that?"
Cop: "It's pretty much cough medicine that they throw Jolly Ranchers in and mix with soda. And it's a purple colour, so they call it purple drink. It has the same effects of being under the influence of heroin."
Room: [Quiet gasps]
Mom: "What's a Jolly Rogers?"
Cop: "Jolly Ranchers. It just gives it flavour."
Mom: "They're getting creative."
But are teens really drinking lean with enough frequency to warrant that exchange? "I've been to a lot of parties and have never seen actual hard drugs. It's just weed and alcohol," said Rachel, a Santa Monica High School student and Reality Party volunteer. "And I've never seen anyone passed out," she added. "It's just throwing up." Her friend and fellow participant Orin agreed: "Ninety-nine percent of the time, these things [at Reality Parties] don't happen."
"What do you usually see?" I asked.
"Um..." he said, before Rachel chimed in, "Orin's not going to remember anything." They both laughed. "Yeah," he added, "I totally didn't drink anything that night [of our cast party] and yell at a foosball player and call him chubby."
"How do you draw that fine line between keeping your kids and their friends safe, but not having them socially isolated?" said one parent, Hisao Kushi, who attended my Reality Party with his wife, Karen. "Because that can cause its own problems, particularly once they leave the home."
"I think it's a lot harder than some of the newer parents think," adds Karen. "They think, one, it's not going to happen to me, and two, I will know how to deal with it. And we know from experience that none of that is true."
This was far from the reaction I was expecting. I thought there'd be fear! Anger! Sadness! Terrible acting! Instead, these savvy parents were only slightly unnerved, and the Out Of Control Kids with their Out Of Control Habits felt strangely in control of the situation (and a hell of a lot more self-aware about drinking and drug culture than I was at their age). Maybe I lucked out and went to an event with a rare group of enlightened adults and kids. Maybe it was because we were in Santa Monica—not far from where the Bling Ring went down, after all—rather than somewhere in the Bible Belt. Or maybe it's because I didn't take any Xanax before I showed up.