The $100 million party that we call Schoolies Week

THIS morning some 30,000 teenagers on the cusp of adulthood will wake up in apartments in and around Surfers Paradise on Queensland's Gold Coast.

As they pour milk on their cornflakes, the latest chart toppers blaring in the background, their minds will be on the week ahead and the festivities which open tonight with a party on the beach.

No doubt they will pause to greet late arrivals, their cereal left to grow soggy amidst the shrieks of delight and long hugs bursting with anticipation.

You can almost hear the excited chatter now as plans are made and numerous outfits tried on and discarded.

Those residents on the Golden Mile who will have to deal with the throngs into December will probably be looking over the rims of their coffee cups with disdain, perhaps wincing at the sounds of youthful abandon.

But from the luxury of distance those of us young enough to remember what it felt like to have the promise of the best years of your life still in front of you can afford to smile along with this latest crop of high school graduates as they begin their journey of self-discovery.

It is hard to believe that a tradition which started in the 1970s with a dunk in the ocean followed by a few blissful days of doing nothing in particular has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry, a pretty close to unequivocal rite of passage for school leavers around the country.

In addition to Surfers Paradise revellers, albeit in much smaller numbers, also make their way to Byron Bay, the Sunshine Coast, Magnetic Island and Airlie Beach.

For graduates in South Australia, Victor Harbour is the location of choice while those Victorians who don't venture up to Queensland usually opt for Lorne and Torquay.

Matt Lloyd, CEO of schoolies.com, was there as the movement gathered momentum. It was Mr Lloyd together with his friend Tony Smith who first brought some kind of organisation to the Schoolies phenomenon on the Gold Coast, opening up a booking service in 1989 to help visitors find a place to stay.

"In the '70s and early '80s students would travel from Brisbane to the Broadbeach Tavern," said Mr Lloyd, "but pretty soon it had grown so big that alternative accommodation was needed.

"It was gaining a reputation of being quite a party event and even though a lot of problems came from the Toolies, building managers were reluctant to allow teenagers to rent units.

 

"So we started a company to facilitate that need, we built on relationships with building managers and put controls in place to start making it a safer event."

Chaotic drunken images in Surfers Paradise of teenagers pushing the limits beamed to us through our television screens and exploding onto the front pages of newspapers is how many of us perceive the whole Schoolies experience.

"That was certainly the case say 15 years ago," said Mr Lloyd.

"But in 2002 the State Government together with the Gold Coast City Council launched what they called a Response to Schoolies to manage the influx through a co-ordinated effort with police, the fire department, community support groups, building managers and volunteers like the Red Frogs.

"With the controls in place this has matured into a really amazing event."

The Response is in fact executed with military precision with the State Government allocating funding for safety initiatives like wristbanding to easily identify schoolies, the recruitment and training of volunteers to offer advice and support, free transport options and activities in alcohol and drug-free environments for legitimate school leavers only.

There is a highly visible police presence, additional lifeguards and security personnel and a purpose-built ambulance treatment facility.

Despite the significant strides made in adding a sense of control to the event, underage drinking remains a problem which needs constant addressing but that is perhaps an issue that transcends the boundaries of this event.

An overwhelming percentage of those leavers attending Schoolies in the first week especially are shy of their 18th birthdays but still manage to get their hands on large amounts of alcohol.

During last year's event on the Gold Coast police made 140 arrests and issued 270 alcohol infringement notices while research by the National Schoolies Week organisation suggests that 52.3% of boys and 37.3% of girls get drunk every night and day of Schoolies Week.

Once again investigators from the Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation will be patrolling licensed venues on the lookout for underage drinkers and adults illegally supplying alcohol to minors.

The penalties are stiff - almost $9000 to any adult providing alcohol to under-18s in an unsupervised environment and fines running into the hundreds of thousands for liquor outlets and pubs found to be doing the same.

Liquor retailers BWS and Dan Murphy's have employed 60 additional security guards for their stores in popular schoolies locations such as Surfers Paradise, the Sunshine Coast and Byron Bay.

They will prevent under-age people from entering stores, as well as keeping an eye on teenagers attempting to use over-18s to purchase alcohol for them.

Surprisingly, the worst offenders it seems are parents who not only supply the cases of beer but also help their teens carry it into their accommodation.

"There are numerous initiatives in place to try and educate parents about the dangers of supplying alcohol especially to excess," said Gold Coast Superintendent Paul Ziebarth.

"For many of these kids this will be the first time they are away from home on their own for such a length of time and, yes, you may trust your child to do the right thing but alcohol can cloud the judgement.

"From our point of view we just want to keep everyone safe. We will have extra numbers patrolling through the party precinct and also in the suburbs. Our main message to the kids is to watch your mates, don't let them do anything stupid, if they're too drunk, take them home."

While Schoolies may have a reputation for wild, unruly behaviour it is evident that is becoming the exception rather than the norm with the majority of the participants using the event to chill out and take stock before being hurled into the responsibilities of the adult world.

It is worth noting, too, that this annual migration is big business for the tour operators who book the packages, the buildings that provide the accommodation and the local businesses that benefit from patronage.

It is estimated that Schoolies will generate nearly $100 million in venues across the country this year, $60 million of that on the Gold Coast alone.

There does, however, seem to be a growing trend for school leavers to seek alternative ways in which to celebrate with many teens heading to overseas venues like Bali, Fiji and Thailand and an increasing number choosing to use that time and money to volunteer in projects in Africa and Asia.

In Australia, places like the Sunshine Coast where the council has opted not to put on any Schoolies events since 2006 in the hope of actively discouraging school leavers descending en masse, have become a haven for organisations running alcohol-free events.

SU Qld, the largest employer of school chaplains in the country, has been operating alcohol-free events for a number of years and CEO Peter James says interest is at an all-time high.

"For thousands of schoolies, there is no attraction to participate in what they see on the television news every year at the Gold Coast, but they don't think they have a choice. They see no alternative," he said.

"This year we've secured an island resort, hired what seems like every charter boat in the Whitsundays and reserved a large site on the Sunshine Coast. Next year we are adding Samoa and Melbourne and we'll keep expanding."

There is little doubt that love it or hate it, the Schoolies celebration is here to stay.

Binge drinking is bound to sully the event but most school leavers whether it's on the Gold Coast, in the Whitsundays or abroad will manage to get through the week without getting their stomachs pumped.

Like all rites of passage it allows young people the opportunity to think independently, examine their moral fabric, to make choices and if they must, bear the consequences. But more than that it is about having fun.

And knowing the world of responsibility that awaits them on the other side, indulging them in this week of freedom is the least we can do.

THE RED FROGS

The Red Frogs started in 1997, giving support to Schoolies on the Gold Coast and now attend 17 Schoolies other post-school festivities around the
country.

Last year, there were around 1300 Red Frog volunteers nationwide, with more than 600 volunteers on the Gold Coast for week one of Schoolies.

More than 7 tonnes of Allens Red Frogs were distributed last year by volunteers.

Volunteers cooked 54,000 pancakes last year for school leavers, via Random Acts of Pancakes.

Their hotline received 10,513 calls last year with 992 walk homes recorded.

Kieran Salsone

WHO'S WHO OF SCHOOLIES

Schoolies - Legitimate school leavers

Toolies - Previous schoolie - generally aged 18-20 years.

Droolies - Was a schoolie a long time ago. Old timer.

Foolies - Underage, schoolie wannabes. It will be their turn next year.

Topics:  alcohol, gold coast, queensland, schoolies 2012, sunshine coast




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