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Party-Bus Bust Highlights Underage Drinking, Marijuana Use in Santa Barbara

Local school officials, substance abuse professionals see opportunity for a wakeup call for teens, parents and community

Santa Barbara High Shool’s main entrance recently served as the meeting place for more than 60 junior high and high school students waiting to board a party bus. The incident — belatedly — is serving as a catalyst to tackle the issues of underage drinking and marijuana use. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara High Shool’s main entrance recently served as the meeting place for more than 60 junior high and high school students waiting to board a party bus. The incident — belatedly — is serving as a catalyst to tackle the issues of underage drinking and marijuana use. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Click here for a related article.]

The fact that junior high and high school students were contracting with local party buses without supervision may have come as a surprise to many school administrators, but Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Dave Cash has seen it before.

It’s a common practice in Claremont and Clovis, where he previously worked as a K-12 superintendent.

“Party buses are not new to the K-12 system,” Cash told Noozhawk. “We haven’t had a lot of it before — but it’s not surprising that it would happen, unfortunately.”

As Noozhawk first reported last week, Santa Barbara police caught 62 teenagers — the youngest was 12 and the oldest 16 — in a party bus on the Santa Barbara High School campus last November.

Officers, who had been tipped to the event, hid inside the school, and observed the students drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and urinating near the campus’ main entrance.

When the bus arrived to pick them up around 9 p.m. that night, the officers — one from SBPD and the other from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — busted the party.

Aboard the bus the officers found contraband “stuffed everywhere,” according to police Sgt. Riley Harwood, an SBPD spokesman.

Among the loot: Bottles of hard alcohol — gin, vodka, tequila, whiskey — plastic cups, marijuana, marijuana pipes, cigarettes, condoms and markers commonly used for graffiti, he said.

The investigations of two of the youths — a boy allegedly found in possession of alcohol and a 14-year-old girl who allegedly booked the trip, promoted it on social media and paid for it using a parent’s credit card — have been forwarded to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

The investigation of the bus driver also has been referred to the DA’s office. No charges have been filed to date.

Police also reported the case to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates bus companies. Although Noozhawk knows the name of the company, authorities have not confirmed it due to the ongoing investigation.

Cash only learned of the Nov. 21 incident in January, but his response was to notify all secondary school principals that party buses are a serious issue. It was all brand-new information to local administrators, he said.

What did surprise Cash were some of the reactions he got from parents. Although he never received a list of the students from police, he did talk to a few parents about the incident.

“I had a conversation with one parent who said ‘it’s none of your business’,” he said. “They said it has nothing to do with school. I said it’s on our campus, so it does.”

If the bus hadn’t met the students on a school campus, it’s likely no one would have ever heard about it unless it ended in tragedy, Cash said.

He and many other community leaders learned about the so-called “party-bus incident” during the January meeting of Santa Barbara Fighting Back, a community collaborative working on substance abuse issues on the South Coast. Fighting Back operates under the auspices of the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse (CADA).

Luis Gomez, who runs the Friday Night Live program, another CADA initiative, was one of the first people to hear about the November escapade and is familiar with the issue of party buses and underage drinking.

“It’s not just an issue that’s Santa Barbara High School, it was just a meeting place,” he said. “I’ve heard that multiple schools from Carpinteria to Goleta use party buses as transportation for birthdays, quinceañeras, prom and winter formals.”

Friday Night Live is a leadership program for junior high and high school students that encourages an alcohol-and-drug-free lifestyle.

Current students in the program told Noozhawk that the party bus rentals are popular for weekends or after events like school dances or a big game. Typically, one student will organize the bus and invite others via social media, sometimes asking for money and/or alcohol contributions.

They warn other students not to come if they “can’t handle it,” students said.

Party Buses Becoming ‘Party Venue on Wheels’

It is illegal for minors to drink alcohol, even on board a chartered bus and even if there are passengers over the age of 21. Bus companies and their drivers must abide by the law.

Eric Onnen, CEO of Santa Barbara Airbus, said that — technically — any bus can operate as a party bus. The same rules apply, however.

Some vehicles are specifically designed for the purpose with privacy dividers between the driver and passengers, video and music systems, dancing poles and bench seating like a stretch limousine.

“The party-bus scene has kind of evolved into a party venue on wheels,” Onnen said.

“It has been going on for years in the limousine environment, just on a smaller scale,” he said.

Santa Barbara Airbus briefly operated a party bus of its own, expecting to tap into the market of wine tasting and event transportation. But Onnen said the vehicle was sold after a flurry of underage groups trying to book it.

A bigger vehicle means a lower per-person cost, making the rental more affordable and therefore a more viable party venue.

“Instead of six-to-10 people, you can have 20-30, or in this case 60,” Onnen said. “That’s a full-on party, that’s a house party.”

He said parents have a responsibility to know what’s going on.

“If they’re vouching for an underage person, they have to really understand what’s happening,” he said. “We had groups of kids who went out on our bus and didn’t break any rules, they had a good time for prom and those kinds of things.”

Gomez noted that wasn’t the case with the November incident. When parents were called to pick up their children after the bust that night, he said, “some parents were taken aback and surprised and other parents said, ‘How dare you tell my 15-year-old what to do?’”

Use of Alcohol and Marijuana Among Students

The Santa Barbara Unified School District, the largest K-12 district on the South Coast, has seen an “uptick” in alcohol consumption in some areas, said Mitch Torina, director of pupil services. District officials also are concerned about marijuana use, with the prevalence of new technologies such as e-cigarettes and vaping pens.

California Healthy Kids Survey data for the district contain self-reported drug, alcohol and mental health information from students in the seventh, ninth and 11th grades. There was a higher response rate in 2013-2014 than the year before, the district notes in its results.

Those results show higher alcohol use last year than in 2012-2013 for all grades. Self-reported marijuana use has remained steady over the last two years, but e-cigarette use (including e-cigarettes, hookah and little cigars) has doubled in every grade level surveyed.

Prevention and intervention efforts are focused at the secondary schools, and the district has partnerships with community groups such as CADA.

The district does not have drug-testing policies for any student activities, including sports, or for any staff.

“We’re all looking out for the best of our youth, and I think what we sometimes forget is some of our youth are going to be wayward, and it really is our job to first educate and not discipline,” Torina said.

The district plans to pursue more counseling interventions at the elementary level, he added.

“Because it isn’t just a student who might be using, they might be in a household where there is drug and alcohol use so they see that as a norm of whatever dynamics are happening in the home,” Torina said. “So, as they get a little bit older and they want to emulate that adult-like behavior, they start engaging in those things as well.”

Cash said the school district needs to provide more training for staff and teachers to recognize students under the influence on campus.

Marijuana use, for one, can be harder to detect with odorless smoking devices and edibles, Torina said.

“The technology for smoking has really changed the landscape,” he said.

E-cigarettes and vaping pens can be used for concentrated THC, and if people concentrate the marijuana themselves, there’s no telling what the potency is, he added.

Drug-detecting dogs make monthly visits to secondary schools to target on-campus marijuana use, and Cash believes the dogs make nondrug-using students feel safer at school by knowing there are fewer drugs on campus.

Torina believes there has been a reduction in on-campus marijuana use but that some students may be getting smarter about it. Some of them send out social media alerts as soon as a dog is seen on campus, and students hide their stashes or leave campus altogether, students from Friday Night Live told Noozhawk.

“I have to say that one of the things where we whiffed — and not us in particular but the community, and we’re a part of that — is having people who are ages 38-60 understand that the potency of marijuana has changed dramatically,” Cash said.

“I have anecdotally had conversations with parents who were very upset we would have consequences for students with a large quantity of marijuana on campus. I had one parent tell me that’s ‘half a lid’ — and I thought, I haven’t heard ‘lid’ (about an ounce of marijuana) since high school.

“I still think we have a whole core group of parents who think, well, I smoked a bunch of pot in high school and I’m a CEO, or an attorney, or an engineer. It didn’t impact me.” 

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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