Monica Yant Kinney | Haddonfield teens going to extremes

Posted: May 27, 2007

The mother of all beer bashes ended with way more than hangovers.

Someone pooped on the piano. Others loaded a Super Soaker with urine and sprayed everything in sight.

But what to say about the teenagers who ejaculated on stuffed animals inside the Maple Avenue home whose oblivious owners were away for the weekend? When did youthful experimentation become so . . . depraved?

That was March, when Haddonfield was starting to realize that things are not as they had always been in the affluent South Jersey suburb, which is like so many others in the region.

Shortly after midnight on Easter, a popular 17-year-old football player leaped to his death from the Ben Franklin Bridge after leading police on a car chase. The boy had been at a party.

A week or so later, Mayor Tish Colombi and School Superintendent Joe O'Brien received an envelope of unsettling photos - Haddonfield high schoolers so proud of their partying, so unconcerned with reprisal, that they put hundreds of images on the Internet.

My favorite? It's a tie between the boy posing next to an artfully arranged pyramid of beer, and the girl who strapped a bottle of Captain Morgan to her chest with a belt for easy access, like a gun in a holster.

"I was blown away by the boldness," Colombi tells me.

So the local leader known for her tailored red suits started airing the town's dirty laundry.

'Reeling out of control'

"To make people sit up and listen, you have to shake them," she figures.

"In 22 years as an elected official, I've never done anything like this, but I fear we're reeling out of control."

Lest you think Colombi is pious, perfect or a prude, know this: "I picked my kids up from the police station, too," she conceded.

Once, in the 1980s, her son slipped his house key to friends so they could have the run of the place while the family was down the Shore.

He was on to something. The latest rage involves friends letting friends get wild in an empty home.

Parents don't even need to be gone long. Some parties start the second they go out to eat. Thanks to cell phones and instant messaging, 60 kids can show up in 10 minutes.

"Word gets out fast," explains Haddonfield Commissioner Neal Rochford, who experienced it himself. "They swarm."

"They're not out just to have a couple of beers and get silly," he adds. "They're out to get annihilated."

Sobering up

At the mayor's roundtable - a first-ever gathering of town leaders and parents that Colombi called last month - she placed ashtrays in front of her guests.

She talked about the era when Haddonfield's police chief marched with the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents wouldn't show homes to Jews.

"There was a time, not so long ago, when some of us - perhaps most of us - would be smoking right now," Colombi told the crowd.

So stop saying things can't change. They can, and do, all the time.

Need more proof of the problem? At her roundtable, and at a civic association meeting last week, Colombi played her slide show of the Internet pictures.

The faces are obscured, to protect the young and not-so-innocent. Still, the audacity silenced the rooms.

Still not convinced? As much as it "disgusts" her, Colombi relays the graphic details of the Maple Avenue mayhem, which caused thousands of dollars of damage.

Fifteen juveniles are charged with burglary and criminal mischief. All 15 are lawyered up and pleading not guilty. So much for teaching kids to take responsibility for their actions.

That life lesson was enough to make the Maple Avenue homeowner speak up at the civic association meeting.

"The other parents are mad at her because their kids got arrested," Colombi explains, incredulously.

The party's over

So what now? Colombi plans to show her slides at back-to-school nights and high school orientations in the fall. Frank talk about the formerly unspeakable subject is becoming more common.

Parents who once bragged about hosting teen drinkers may be rethinking their stance, Rochford says. Or at least "they're keeping a low profile."

Ideas are trickling in - such as no-cut athletics (to keep high school students from having any free time for crime) and a coffeehouse teens can call their own (to get them hooked on a legal stimulant).

Linda Bolger, a parent who attended Colombi's session, wants Haddonfield to require students to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting before graduation.

"Will it stop prom parties?" No, she knows. But it can't hurt.

A few weeks ago, four students were caught drinking at the sophomore dance, O'Brien tells me. Thirty-one others have been punished for off-campus behavior in a tough new policy that has outraged parents and teenagers.

"I told them, 'I want to change the culture before somebody dies,' " he recalls. "There were kids who said, 'That won't happen here. We're smarter than that.' "

O'Brien pauses. The Easter tragedy was the 14th alcohol-related death of his 30-year career.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.

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