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It's Not Always A Parent's Fault?

PARENTS of teenagers in Montgomery County, Md., are finding themselves caught in embarrassing media spotlights these days. Two recent incidents, one involving underage drinking, the other gang rapes, revive an old question: What are the limits of parental responsibility and accountability?

In one case last week, police charged five teenage boys in Germantown, Md., with gang-raping two 14-year-old girls during drinking parties in August and September. One of the defendants is the son of the county superintendent of schools, at whose home the August incident allegedly occurred. In deciding to charge the youths as adults rather than teenagers, police say they are sending two clear messages: first, that juveniles cannot get away with sexual violence and, second, that parents must supervise their children more closely.

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In the other case, police raided an unsupervised keg party at a house in Potomac, Md., last month. Guests included two busloads of teenagers who stopped there after a homecoming dance. Ironically, parents had rented the buses to ensure their children's safety en route to and from the dance. The Washington Post played up the incident in a front-page story with a tabloid-style headline reading: ``Parents Hire Buses for Teens' Beer Party.''

The question posed in old public-service announcements - ``It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?'' - has become increasingly difficult for parents to answer in the affirmative. Teenagers with jobs and cars find it easier than their counterparts did in earlier generations to achieve independence and freedom. That leaves parents, caught between a desire to protect and a concern that overprotectiveness will lead to youthful rebellion, struggling to achieve a balance between trust and safety.

Unsupervised teenage keg parties have become a familiar weekend activity in suburbs across the country. Aided by easy access to alcohol and by unsuspecting parents who are away from home for an evening or a weekend, adolescents see drinking as a rite of passage proclaiming their independence and maturity.

It is a point of view many adults do not share. As part of a new get-tough approach to teenage drinking in Montgomery County, police are promising more raids on beer parties. Authorities are also cracking down on liquor outlets that sell alcohol to minors. Undercover agents report that almost one-third of these stores sell alcohol to teens. Liquor sellers, angry at what they see as entrapment, blame teenagers for buying liquor illegally and parents for not monitoring their children more closely.

Efforts like these, repeated across the country, could help curb at least some illegal drinking and with it the date rapes and drunk driving that can become tragic consequences.

As one measure of the seriousness of the problem, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that alcohol-related crashes claim the lives of 3,000 to 5,000 15-to-20-year-olds every year.

Another partial solution lies in tagging beer kegs at liquor stores, a practice already under way in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and other states. By requiring keg buyers to register their names and addresses, authorities can trace kegs when minors consume the beer.

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For parents at Churchill High School in Potomac, where the bus incident occurred, another option exists. Through a group called the School Community Action Team, which works to combat student alcohol use, parent leaders are calling for an end to unchaperoned parties with alcohol. They emphasize the need for clear curfews and for supervision of teens when parents are away.

Accountability is a favorite term these days - never more popular than when applied severely to parents. Insofar as it is synonymous with responsibility, accountability expresses an impulse to reform, to change things for the better. But insofar as it becomes synonymous with blame - and often it does - accountability turns negative. Parents have enough guilt without confronting a circle of accusing fingers, while the chorus chants, ``If anything goes wrong with your baby for the first 21 years - and maybe after - it's all your fault.''

The cultivation of a young adult in a frenetic and risk-prone society is a fragile and complicated business. Good sense dictates a little charity for all concerned - children, parents, teachers, and everybody else involved. To borrow a slogan, let the emphasis fall on ``save the children'' rather than on self-righteous games of ``blame the adults.''

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