Lisa Secan and Mary Snider are moms on a mission.
"Our commitment is to keep our kids out of the emergency rooms and morgues on graduation night," said Snider. "If we can protect them that one night, they'll get to college orientation and their jobs. That's our goal."
To this end, Secan and Snider have joined together with other parents at Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge high schools to bring Senior Grad Nite to the Northwest in May 2004, and they want the help of local businesses.
"This is something that helps the whole community," said Snider. "We all want our kids safe and statistics show that graduation night is one of the most dangerous nights on the roads. If businesses help us put on a quality party, it will be good for everyone in Oro Valley."
Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp has offered to speak at a business breakfast later this month to encourage local businesses to support the Northwest's grad nites "to provide a drug and alcohol free setting for students to celebrate on graduation night."
According to Grad Nite literature, the concept of offering high school graduates an alternative to drug and alcohol-centered celebrations began in Orange County, Calif., in 1986. Two mothers joined with the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the California Office of Traffic Safety and Mitsubishi Motors to develop a concept based on keeping graduating seniors together for a night of safe celebration.
Schools were converted from educational institutions to casinos and recording studios through the construction of elaborate, Hollywood-like sets and extensive decorations. Hot tubs, carnival games, magicians and other attractions, usually based on a particular theme, completed the effect.
The idea quickly spread from Orange County to other California school districts and eventually nationwide, with the majority of Grad Nite parties on either coast and in Texas, said Paul Snodgrass, highway safety specialist with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Locally, Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive, has sponsored a Grad Nite party for the past eight years. It was started by a mother who had moved to Tucson from a city where Grad Nite was commonplace. The event costs approximately $40,000 to host and draws 85 percent of the school's graduating seniors, said Susan Schroder, one of the organizers.
Of the $38,154 Catalina Foothills spent on last May's Grad Nite, only $5,715 came from donations. More than 350 students attended. The majority of the money for the party came from parents of seniors - tickets to the event run $100 - and the most costly event items were carnival ride ($10,580), food ($4,700) and set construction ($4,874).
CDO and Ironwood hope to keep the ticket cost to $50 or less through partnerships with businesses. Amphi High School is not currently considering a Grad Nite, Snider said.
In addition to a financial investment, Grad Nite parties require a large volunteer investment. Planning, chaperoning and providing entertainment for the event necessitates about 350 parent volunteers over a 12-month period, said Secan. Parents of seniors do the planning during the year and parents of juniors staff the party "because seniors don't necessarily want to party with their parents."
Both Secan and Snider relocated to the Tucson area from states that had Grad Nite; Secan from Seattle and Snider from Santa Rosa, Calif.
"We had it in Seattle and frankly, from a parent's perspective, the best feeling was not having to worry about where my kid was and all the drinking and driving," Secan said. "All the kids wanted to be at the (Grad Nite) party because there were phenomenal events. These are not just 'decorate the gym and dance' parties. These are all-night, all-encompassing events."
Snider's son, now in his first year of law school in California, confirmed this assessment.
"People describe it like a fair or carnival, but it's more like going to Vegas," said Barrett Snider, 23, who said he's made a number of trips to the Nevada gambling mecca. "You can't believe what you see when you drive up to the school. You go inside and everywhere there is something to do. And food! There was food everywhere. We had hot tubs, sumo wrestling, casino tables and probably the highlight was a hypnotist. That night is one of my best memories."
Ironwood and CDO organizers won't give complete details of all the activities they are considering for the 2004 Grad Nite events because "part of the draw for kids is the surprise," but confirmed that possibilities are hot tubs, pool tables, palm readers, karaoke, live bands, hand writing analysis, sumo wrestling suits and casino games.
Snider said Ironwood organizers are beginning to meet with student groups to get ideas of what the kids would like and marketing students met with the CDO Grad Nite committee last month to offer suggestions of what students want at the party. In addition, those students - as well as marketing students from Ironwood - are developing surveys to poll the high school population about Grad Nite activities and developing marketing plans to sell the idea to their classmates.
CDO junior Otto Hanson, 16, said "from what we know about Grad Nite plans, it sounds like fun."
"I'm going to go, I really like the idea," said Hanson, who was one of the CDO marketing students brought in by the Grad Nite committee to offer input. "I think we can get the kids interested, especially if they do cool stuff like sumo wrestling. We just have to get people to stand behind the idea."
Cindy Pilar, director of curriculum and instruction for Windsor Unified Schools in Santa Rosa, was involved in Grad Nite for six years as principal of Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa. She said she was unaware of any of the 30 high schools within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco that did not have Grad Nite. Ticket prices range from $20 to $35 per student because of business partnerships.
"The community is extensively involved, primarily giving in-kind donations," Pilar said. "Plumbers came in and set up hot tubs for us for free, electricians came in and did wiring for light shows, and one year, we did free haircuts and styling and we had six stylists donate their services all night long."
In addition, Pilar said businesses donated used cars, computers, TVs and stereo systems as prizes throughout the night at the Grad Nite parties.
The success of the Santa Rosa evenings - she said Windsor Unified Schools has "well over 90 percent" of their graduating seniors attending Grad Nite parties each year - comes from "depending on the kids to tell us what they want and then doing it."
"I remember the first year they said they wanted a hypnotist and our first thought was, 'Where on earth will we find that?' But we did, and it is so popular, the guy comes back," she said. "You get buy-in from each group - the skaters, the slackers, the student government kids, everyone. The only way these work is if the kids feel a large measure of control and input."
Rick Chandler, owner of Baja Spas, 3801 N. Oracle Road, is the first Oro Valley businessman to partner with the Grad Nite committees.
"I've got a kid at CDO and the group of parents putting this together called me and told me what the idea was, how they want to keep kids off the streets and safe and I thought, if I can offer something to make the event a little cooler, something to make kids want to come, I'm all over it," said Chandler. "We truly love to get involved in community stuff, but also, I remember being a senior in high school. You get all excited that night and, really, nothing but trouble can come from that if there's not something organized for the kids to do. There is pressure to drink and teens drive. We need to keep them off the road that night."
Chandler said he also will be donating 20,000-gallon portable pools to the Grad Nite parties at Ironwood and CDO.
According to Snodgrass of the NHTSA, alcohol-related fatalities in the under-21 age group have been rising steadily since 1998 after a nearly 20-year decline.
"Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death to teen-agers, the leading cause of disability, disablement and brain injury to young people," Snodgrass said. "Kids don't die of cancer or heart disease - it is trauma that kills them."
And that is exactly what the Grad Nite committees in the Northwest want to avoid.
"We need to give kids an alternative to do something fun in a planned way and doesn't have to involve alcohol," said Chuck Luhtala, a member of the Ironwood Grad Nite committee. "Lots of times you hear about graduation and the next day all you hear about are accidents that happened, kids who got hurt, someone dying. We want to try to let them say goodbye to their friends in a positive, safe, really fun way."
Secan said she knows Grad Nite might be a hard-sell to teen-agers used to partying in the desert to mark major milestones, but she believes it can be successful if the community pulls together.
"We can't keep them from drinking or making other poor choices all the time," she said. "But if we can offer them an option on this one special night, I think it is worth trying."
Barrett Snider said the draw of Grad Nite for many teens turns out to be that it is a sober experience.
"Basically, you can drink out in the woods or desert any night of the year, but you'll only have one graduation night to party with everyone from your school," Snider said. "Kids can - and do - drink the night before or the night after, but this night is reserved and what I remember is that we all got real nostalgic that last week of school and we wanted something different. We wanted something out of the ordinary. Grad Nite was it."