To schoolie or not to schoolie…

Originally posted 25/11/14

Your child is 17/18 years old. They’ve finally graduated after no less than thirteen gruelling years of school, they’ve survived the exams known to drive teenagers to anxiety and depression, they’ve bid farewell to their classmates at their Year 12 formal, and now it’s time for them to step out into the Big Wide World.  Thankfully, there is a blissful month-and-a-half between burning the last of their exam notes and results day, when they’re reminded that their final exams were real; not just some horrible nightmare. It should come as no surprise that your son or daughter will want to spend some of this time on a holiday with their best friends, planning to do nothing but drink and go to the beach, thus jumping the bandwagon that many Australians consider to be a rite of passage: schoolies week.

‘Schoolies’ is defined in Urban Dictionary as “A week long piss-up held at Surfers’ Paradise. Everyone gets drunk and gets laid and parties on the beach!” This entry, however, was made in 2004, and schoolies has certainly evolved from what it was 10 years ago. Today, while the Gold Coast is still a popular destination for Schoolies, many other destinations both inside and outside of Australia have come to rival it, such as Bali, Fiji and Byron Bay. It has even become common for school-leavers to rent out a house in a more low-key area such as Avoca, when they want to have a holiday but aren’t up for the chaos of the more mainstream schoolies locations. That being said, there is still much truth to this age-old definition. Having had my own schoolies experience at the Gold Coast last year, I can confirm that “everyone gets drunk and gets laid” still sufficiently sums up schoolies. Though I was only 17, I had an absolute blast. I shared an apartment with two of my close friends and basically ran into everyone I’ve ever known. We even managed to drag ourselves away from the buzz of the infamous Cavill Avenue and went to Dreamworld for a day, albeit quite horrifically hungover. We sizzled by the pool all day and yes, we spent our nights drinking. A whole year later, in spite of the disconcerting photos I am still blackmailed with, I still consider my schoolies week one of the best of my life.

However, many parents of school-leavers believe that a week where “everyone gets drunk and gets laid” is something that should be forbidden, not condoned. Every year, for every 10 schoolies going wild, there is at least one school-leaver left at home because their parents refused to let them go to their desired destination. However, parents can’t be blamed – every year, the top news stories in the last week of November are punctuated by footage of teenagers running around half-naked and getting tattoos they will most definitely regret, as well as horror stories that will make any parent’s skin crawl. In 2011, 18-year-old Jake Flannery was electrocuted while returning from a night out in Bali. In 2012, 17-year-old Isabelle Colman fell to her death from a balcony at the Towers of Chevron Renaissance in Surfers’ Paradise, the hotel where I spent my own schoolies. In 2013, 17-year-old Jasmine Baker’s celebrations in Bali went awry as she was rushed home after being poisoned by a cocktail laced with methanol. And last Sunday, 26 schoolies at the Gold Coast were arrested following a vicious brawl that saw chairs and tables thrown and suspected broken noses.

It’s only logical that now more than ever, parents are calling for an end to the tradition that has come to define Australian school-leaving culture. They say that schoolies is “pointless” and “does more harm than good” and “that’s why MY daughter/son will NEVER be going.” It’s not just parents either – people in their early 20s have confessed they had no interest in “getting ridiculously drunk” and “getting assaulted/raped/methanol poisoning/falling from a balcony”. As a former schoolie who survived the Gold Coast (I have the shirt to prove it), I can assure concerned parents that this is not all schoolies is, and while terrible tragedies do happen, it is highly unlikely your child will not return to you safe and sound, for three main reasons. Alas, I haven’t visited every schoolies destination, so I will refer to my experiences in the Gold Coast and my friends’ experiences in Bali, which are probably the two most common – and notorious – destinations.

There is supervision

The main reason the Gold Coast is not the supreme schoolies destination anymore is the hefty price. However, something else is brought up by school-leavers frequently: “there’s too many cops at the Gold Coast.” The second I hit Cavill Avenue, I knew this was no myth. There were times when I swear, there were more policemen than schoolies around. I saw arrests being made, fines being issued and people being escorted back to their hotel rooms every single night. There is not a lot that you can slip by these cops – believe me, people tried. There’s no drinking on the street. There’s no walking around naked. Any unrest that should occur is taken care of almost immediately. Many parents who are reluctant to let their school-leavers become schoolies say “I trust my child, it’s the others I don’t trust.” As long as you didn’t spawn one of the idiots who like to cause trouble, you can rest assured that more often than not, with so much supervision, your child will return safely to you with no criminal history. It’s true that there is much less supervision at overseas destinations, but it is still almost guaranteed that your child will come back in one piece, even if they have gone to a place like Bali. Why?

School-leavers are more educated than you think

At Bali, there is no drinking age, there are little to no policemen around to restore order and people will try to sell you drugs every day. This is enough to give any parent apoplexy, in fact, I am still forbidden to go to Bali anytime, ever. However, I have six friends who went to Bali and had the time of their lives, and I am happy to say they are still with me today with no methanol poisoning to report. The reason for this is simple. We hear the horror stories too. We know how vulnerable we are when we drink, even more so in a foreign country. That’s why we take steps to ensure that we don’t make the front page of the SMH in Yet Another Schoolies Tragedy. We never walked anywhere by ourselves. We made sure we got our friends home safely when they’ve had too much to drink. We never let our friends go home with a stranger. My friends at Bali knew what bars and drinks to avoid, they knew to ignore the cops-disguised-as-weed-dealers and they even learnt a bit of Indonesian. And yes, we all know about safe sex and date rape drugs. Sadly, sometimes even the most responsible of teenagers get into trouble, and my heart goes out to the few unfortunate parents who have had a child killed or harmed at schoolies. But for every one teenager who may not, tens of thousands more make it home safe. It’s a risk indeed, but there is never a better time to take such a risk than now, in an age where teens are more educated than ever on their limits and other people’s limits.

There is help available

Red Frogs is the main support network available to school-leavers. They give talks to over 40,000 Year 12 students on how to stay safe schoolies and there are around 1500 volunteers at schoolies locations in Australia and Bali every year. I was incredibly grateful for their presence while I was at Surfers’ Paradise. It’s true that when there’s no parental figures around and you’re having so much fun with your friends, teenagers sometimes forget to eat. While I myself could NEVER forget to eat, I remember the boys in the next room to me partied literally 24/7 and had nothing in their fridge but beer, beer, butter for some reason, and beer. Red Frogs came to their rescue – they were happy to be called at 3 in the morning to their room to make us all pancakes, free of charge. The pancakes were delicious, but they were more than food slaves. Red Frogs have an app where you can request a walk home if you do find yourself separated from your friends, learn some of the best schoolies deals going on and even ask them to visit your hotel just for a chat. Every schoolie knows about and make use of Red Frogs, so your child will never go hungry and always have someone to help them when they need. Every single volunteer I met was kind, patient and helpful, and I will always be thankful to the Red Frogs who made sure mine and my friends’ holidays weren’t spoiled.

Take it from someone who’s been there – banning schoolies is not the answer to these terrible tragedies we all hear about. Not only for the above reasons, but because it’s one of the last chances for school-leavers to make unforgettable memories with the people they’ve spent up to 13 years of education with. There is no way any school-leaver knows where their first year in the real world will take them. I know from experience that when you’re 17 or 18 in a time where there’s so many expectations from parents, teachers and worst of all, yourself, making decisions about your future is stressful, on top of wondering if your best friends will still be your best friends ten years, two years, or two months after graduation. Today, my life is definitely not what it was a year ago. I’ve made new friends, drifted from old ones and changed my mind at least 10 times about what I want to do with my life. I’m not 17 and fresh out of school anymore, but I haven’t forgotten my schoolies week and I never will – not because of the drinking and partying, but because of the memories I made with people I don’t see anymore and may never see again. So take my advice – let your child go to schoolies. Let them make memories and enjoy the blissful period of zero responsibilities that older people crave. It’s a risk, but I can promise it’s a risk I can promise you your school-leaver will be grateful that you made.

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