NEWS- Two parties: Debate follows tragic deaths

Since July 16, 2002, when 16-year-old Brittany Hope Bishop perished as a passenger in what police termed an alcohol-related accident on Earlysville Road, several Central Virginia students have died in similar car crashes. 

In the wake of two recent parties where underage drinking took place, debate has raged from coffeehouses to county meetings. But in the recent death of 17-year-old Nolan Jenkins following one of those parties, the tragic connection to Bishop has yet to take center stage.

The Hook has learned that the party Jenkins left shortly before his death– and where police later charged 11 minors with underage alcohol possession– took place on an Ash Lawn-area farm belonging to Brittany's grandfather, Earl Bishop.

Efforts to reach the elder Bishop, whose address is listed in Quinque, were unsuccessful, and calls to her parents, who established an alcohol-safety foundation in their late daughter's honor, were not returned.

Police have declined to say exactly how they found the party on Bishop Hill Road off the James Monroe Parkway, other than reading from a police report that "information" at the crash site led them to it.

Jenkins, traveling alone and not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car in the single-vehicle accident, reported at 9:47pm on May 19, according to Lt. Greg Jenkins of the Albemarle County Police. Jenkins is not related to the victim.

Speed and alcohol have been listed as probable factors in the crash, but neither the police nor the state medical examiner's office in Richmond would release Jenkins' blood alcohol content.

Ironically, the Bishop family created a program designed to prevent exactly this kind of accident.

In the wake of Brittany's death, her parents, Kellie and Beau Bishop, established a foundation that offers rides to any adolescent who's been drinking. The BRITT program– Beats Risking It, Take a Taxi– began in November 2002. BRITT is so highly respected that a team of students chosen by the Charlottesville Albemarle Community Foundation named it top charity the year after its founding, an honor that netted a $10,000 grant from the Foundation.

The money provides imprinted keychains offering free Yellow Cab taxi rides to alcohol-impaired adolescents. BRITT has provided hundreds of rides, according to Georgie, a Yellow Cab office manager who didn't want her last name published.

"You have to give your name, a phone number, age, and what school you attend," Georgie says, but she adds that the information is required only to keep people from abusing the service and is not shared with police. Mostly the rides are used by city kids, but Yellow Cab has transported students to county homes, Georgie says, noting that the company gets one or two BRITT calls a week.

Charlottesville High School grads Aaron Zentgraf and Ross Pickering didn't use BRITT on June 5, 2003, and they died when their car crashed on their way home from a party. Nor did Jenkins when he left the Bishop farm in a 2003 Nissan Xterra later found on its roof along the Thomas Jefferson Parkway.

The 54-acre farm on Bishop Hill Road, just past Ash Lawn-Highland, is unoccupied, say police, except for some dogs kept there. Surrounded by other farms, the Bishop house stands alone about 300 yards from the road.

Neighbor Peter Gudaitis heard nothing unusual from the farm across the road from his house on the night of the party.

"If I'd owned a place like that when I was 18, I'd have been back there," says Gudaitis. Since the accident, he says, the gate at the driveway has been kept shut. 

Seventeen-year old Jenkins was a lacrosse player, and police say 11 of 19 partygoers– all minors– were arrested, but they decline to say whether Bishop's brother, also a lacrosse player, was present. Nor will they say whether adults will be charged. The matter is still under investigation by the commonwealth attorney's office.

After the accident, Albemarle High principal Matt Haas asked all athletes who'd broken training rules– which prohibit the consumption of alcohol and drugs– to step forward. The AHS team ended up withdrawing from post-season competition after Jenkins' death, which prompted some parents to ask whether any lacrosse players had attended the party.

"One of the concerns I hear from the community is, are we singling out athletes?" says School Board member Brian Wheeler. "Should we have student conduct policies that treat all students the same?"

The June 8 Albemarle School Board agenda contains a discussion of the student conduct code, and Wheeler says the board will explore whether to take a stronger look at off-grounds conduct– or go the other way. Even before the latest rash of teen drinking arrests, Wheeler had proposed an athletics advisory council.

One obstacle to school repercussions for off-grounds drinking: "The state doesn't give police the authority to tell us if a student commits a misdemeanor," Wheeler says. Schools are notified only if a student commits a felony. 

"It's a tragedy we wish wouldn't happen," Wheeler says. "We have a pattern of tragic accidents. It says to me we need to do something different."

Albemarle School Board Chair Sue Friedman  says the board is required to review every policy every five years. On the issue of enforcing rules at non-school functions, "I've been hearing all over the map from A to Z," she says. "I think it needs to be a thoughtful discussion that takes time. We will not be making a decision Thursday."

Despite the tragedies, some parents think police may be over-reacting, especially when talk turns to what was a different kind of event, certainly one without a horrific outcome: the May 28 parent-attended post-prom party for Western Albemarle High students near Crozet.

There, the 5:30am police raid and the arrests of 16 Western Albemarle students set off a wave of controversy sparked by allegations that many students had to be awakened before being arrested. Later, coaches asked all athletes– in the midst of post-season tournaments– to sign a statement that they had not broken training rules, and about 30 students were dropped from teams, including six starters on the boys' soccer team. 

Several parents have contacted the Hook to say that Tom and Lucy Goeke, who hosted the post-prom event, had made efforts to prevent alcohol consumption. At press time, no charges had been filed against the Goekes, and the matter is still in the hands of the commonwealth's attorney, according to police.

"The real danger is drinking and driving– not drinking," says parent Claudia Sencer.

That danger compels some parents to host teen parties. In the area's most notorious case, George and Lisa Robinson attempted to forestall their son's stated intention to drink by throwing a pool party themselves that included alcohol– but not letting anyone leave. The August 19, 2002, event– one month after Brittany Bishop's death– so riled Judge Dwight Robinson that he branded the Robinsons "a danger to the community" and handed the couple an eight-year jail sentence.

The Robinsons have appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia– and they're still waiting for a decision.

"I think it's really sad," Sencer says of the recent Crozet arrests. "Those people did everything they possibly could" to keep the teens from drinking. "You do that, and you're still targeted," she says.

Sencer believes the police response was heavy-handed. "They weren't partying," she says. "Everyone was asleep. There's responding to a problem and there's creating a problem. This is creating a problem."

Sencer is the mother of a senior at Tandem, and she says no parent at that school was willing to host a graduation party. "No one was willing to take the risk," she says. "I think the community needs to ask the police what they're doing."

In part, Sencer blames the age-21 drinking law. "We tell children that 18-year-old males have to register and they're old enough to fight," she says. "They can be tried as adults." With alcohol, she says, it's a mixed message. "It becomes forbidden fruit. The whole binge generation grew out of that."

Teen drinking is an issue with which Kathy Zentgraf continues to grapple since the death of her son. 

"You can say anything you want to kids, but a lesson has to be attached, and every lesson has to be personal," she says. 

Neither a drinking age of 21, nor the deaths of their peers seem to slake teen appetites for beer,