A recent letter sent to Whistler Secondary School's (WSS) graduating class and their parents by Principal Bev Oakley has caused a furor over the high school's longstanding grad "kidnapping" tradition.
Grade 12 students take their unassuming classmates from their homes - on a school night - before taking them to a party where underage drinking takes place. The tradition typically occurs twice a year, with girls kidnapping the boys, and vice versa.
The letter was written in response to a community member's concerns, raised during an Oct. 18 parent information session attended by a local RCMP officer and a representative from Whistler Community Services.
In the letter, sent three weeks after the Grade 12 girls kidnapped their male classmates, Oakley wrote that the tradition encourages "binge drinking" where students are "sometimes bound and tossed into the back of a vehicle" driven by "grads that may or may not have been drinking" before "the prisoners are force-fed alcoholic beverages, in many cases to the point of severe inebriation."
The letter also expressed concern that hung-over students were unprepared to learn on the day following the kidnappings and that "their presence in class is negative."
"Honestly, (the letter) came from a place of concern. We want to make sure our grads are safe," said Oakley. "I think we want to be proactive and communicate with each other, rather than being reactive after something possibly happens. If we have a concern about student safety, we're going to talk about it, we're not going to stay quiet about it."
While Oakley said there have been instances of students suffering alcohol poisoning as a result of the tradition in previous years, there have been no such cases reported this year.
The letter sparked controversy among the student population and some of the grads' parents, who felt the letter's tone was accusatory and based on falsities, which led to one parent of a former WSS student to post the letter on Facebook.
"Because Ms. Oakley blew it so out of proportion and accused us of doing so many wrong things, my parents didn't even take the email seriously because they know we're not like that and they know that we took all the precautions," said Grade 12 student Savanah Pantages.
The graduating class recently responded with a letter of their own, outlining the safety precautions that the students took before the kidnappings, and expressing concern that the issue was being blown out of proportion, with their graduating class being singled out.
"We don't understand why our grad class was targeted because it's happened every other year. We honestly believe that our grad class has done it the safest and the best out of any year," said Grade 12 student Kerry-Anne Hamilton.
The grad class rebutted many of the accusations by the school's administration, claiming that all parents were notified prior to the event and gave consent for their child's participation.
Hamilton and Pantages said that all students were driven to the party's location by parents and picked up afterwards, the first year this occurred. In years past, students have driven.
"We had parent drivers, there was seatbelts, nobody was tied up, nobody was a prisoner to stay at the house, a lot of people chose to go home after the party was over," said Hamilton, before adding that any students who did not wish to participate in the kidnappings were not forced to do so.
The grad students said they were shocked when they read their principal's letter, and expected to be consulted before it was sent out to Grade 11 and 12 students and parents.
"What should have happened, is Ms. Oakley and (Vice-Principal Stuart) Bent should have called an assembly or a meeting with all the grads and just said 'This is what actually happens, you need to take these precautions and not do it on a school night' and we could have summed up all the assumptions and just gotten rid of all the grey water that's been hanging around," said Pantages.
The students admitted that the kidnappings should not have occurred on a school night, although this regularly happened in years past.
"I think our biggest mistake was that we did it on a school night and brought the night to school afterwards. We need to do it on a Friday night or a Saturday night so we don't feel the effects at school," said Hamilton.
The chief concern for many of the 2013 graduating class is their reputation in the Whistler community.
"We're worried about the community thinking of us in a negative way now, because the community helps out the grad class each year with fundraising and scholarships and we don't want that to change for our year because the administration decided to write the email about our grad class," said Hamilton.
Principal Oakley said she had no alternative to writing the letter, which was not the first sent to parents addressing underage drinking.
"We felt it was important to let parents know what the consequences would be if students arrived at school dressed inappropriately, or in a state in which they were disrupting their classes or unable to learn. We felt it was necessary for parents and grads to have all the information before making their decision," she said. While she regrets that the letter was publicized, she hopes that by putting it in a more public forum, some positive discussion will emerge.
"I think in the end, it's going to turn out to be something that we need to look at and communicate. We don't really seem to be able to generate this kind of discussion under any other means," she said.
Whistler Community Services' Outreach and Drug Prevention Worker Jackie Dickinson meets with the school's Teen Advisory Group, discussing issues like underage drinking, drug use and sexual health, and regularly attends parent information nights at the school.
She said that students likely feel pressure to continue a longstanding school tradition, a sentiment echoed by Pantages.
"We don't want to be that lame grad year that does nothing," she admitted.
Dickinson said she plans to meet with the grad committee in the hopes of "getting a sense from them as to why this is an important activity and what aspects are most important and how we can translate that to a healthier, safer alternative."
"We want to figure out a way to change this tradition because we're concerned that the longer this continues, the consequences get greater and greater," she said, noting that Whistler suffered a pair of alcohol-related deaths in the past year when two young men died from exposure in separate incidents following bouts of excessive drinking.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair said he had never personally heard of any criminal incidents involving the kidnapping tradition, but that the issue of underage drinking was "not something we're going to turn a blind eye to."
"If there's a house party and we know there's underage drinkers there, we may end up going and laying charges under the Liquor Control Licensing Act," he said.