Teen drinking - especially in rural areas like Lodi, where the "there's nothing else to do" refrain is heard loud and clear - has been going on as long as alcohol has been manufactured.
Area teens say drinking parties are held pretty much anywhere they can get away with it; in fact, two bonfires have recently taken place at the Eight Mile Road site where a group of teens had been partying before the Feb. 27 vehicle accident that claimed the life of 16-year-old Stephanie Jones.
Jones was not driving, and the accident remains under investigation.
A Lodi High School junior said the people who attend parties come from all social groups.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I guess people say, 'If you hear about the party, then you're cool enough to go.'"
One Lodi High graduate, who is now enrolled at Delta College, said he has more than 500 phone numbers stored in his cell phone. He always knows where the drinking parties are happening and still attends, despite not yet being 21.
"People go to just get away, to have fun drinking, or to even do drugs," the high school junior added. "Somebody will bring weed, and others will pay for a 'hit' of it. Or for free." As for getting the booze, it depends on where the party is, who is throwing it and who is planning to attend, he said.
And where do they go?
"Houses, bonfires, anywhere a big group of people can get together and hopefully drink and have fun without cops showing up," said a Lodi High senior.
"People party for many reasons. My reason was because it was a phase that most teens go through. I had a lot of fun in that time of my life but also a lot of regrets," she added in an e-mail. "Hopefully, people grow out of that experimental time, but the people who don't get into hardcore drugs and can damage their lives permanently."
Another Lodi High senior said most parties are at fellow students' houses when their parents are out of town.
"But sometimes we have bonfires on dirt roads and stuff. People go to have fun, get drunk, and have a good time and meet new people," she said.
"The whole night is just people drinking, dancing, listening to music, being loud and stupid. And what we tell our parents … well, some people can tell their parents the truth about what they're doing and they don't care. Others make up a variety of lies to tell their parents."
With all the access to parties and drinking, some teens and their parents seek to minimize the risks. Some of the under-age drinkers stay at home, chaperoned by an adult, or think ahead and designate a non-drinker to get them home safely.
Tokay High School senior Zach Stephens said that because his family is European and drinking is more acceptable in those countries, he thinks drinking is OK "as long as everything is safe and you stay in one spot."
And he's never known any of his teenage peers to get caught drinking in public.
'Generations' of teen parties
"People have been going to bonfires in the Delta for generations," Tokay High principal Erik Sandstrom said.
He said it's important that parents don't let their children minimize their risky behavior by saying, "It was only a little," or, "We had a designated driver," because it only takes one mistake to trigger serious consequences.
Sandstrom's assistant, Tammy Foley, who grew up in Lockeford in the 1960s, said teenagers then partied on Delta levees and out in vineyards.
Decades later, they would go to places like the Tracy islands, the walnut and cherry orchards in Linden, and even empty model homes throughout the rural areas, according to a St. Mary's graduate who admitted to getting drunk even before he hit the ninth grade.
In high school, he said, Lodi kids used to always go out to Jahant Road, east of Highway 99, to party with alcohol.
At the time, a lot of them had fake IDs. If that didn't work to get the booze, the teens would bribe someone outside a liquor store to buy alcohol, or get a colleged-age friend to buy them kegs, according to the Stockton native, who asked that his name not be used.
Today, Sandstrom said, a lot of the alcohol - wine, beer and hard liquor - comes from mom and dad's unlocked liquor cabinet.
Sheriff spokesman Les Garcia encourages parents and students to alert deputies if they know ahead of time about parties in the county's orchards, vineyards or along the banks of the Delta.
"When we are made aware that kids are at a gathering in the rural areas and there is alcohol, we will be there. If we don't know they are out there, it's hard to do anything about it," Garcia said.
Garcia points to the case of a Thornton woman who threw a party for her 16-year-old daughter and was cited when San Joaquin County Sheriff's deputies said she provided alcohol to minors.
"That's evidence we will take action when we know about it," Garcia said.
Sandstrom said that alcohol is seen in society as a lesser evil to hard drugs. "It almost seems like it's better than 'x.' That's a warped perspective.
"Which would you rather have your kids doing? Neither. It's illegal." Instead, he said, the message needs to change, or at least be kept fresher; less "Just say no" and more, "If you're going to do it, then …."
"There's a fine line between 'Don't drink and drive' versus 'Drink safely,'" he said.
Avoiding 'mixed messages'
Seniors Selma Granados and Carolina Barreto both said they know people whose parents think it's OK if they provide the alcohol and keep the drinkers at home, and Granados actually attended a party like this but thought it was "weird."
"My mom would never do that," she said.
Barreto, who has two younger 16-year-old brothers, said her parents told her that if she was ever curious, she could taste alcohol at home.
"That's what it is. Teenagers are tempted by it," Barreto said, adding that she has never had anything to drink. "I just think there's too much to lose."
Suzanne Schreiner, a mother of three boys, does not believe it's OK for teens to drink under any circumstances - at their parents' homes or in public - even if there are designated drivers.
"The teens said there were designated drivers, but were there really? Or did some say, 'I'll only have one drink?''" she said, in reference to the fatal accident earlier this month.
"I think we would be surprised at the number of parents who think underage drinking is OK. I think many want to be cool," she said.
But sometimes the alcohol has even found its way onto campus. When she was a freshman, Barreto said, there were seniors who were caught putting alcohol in plastic soda bottles during a classroom party.
"It's stupid," Schreiner added of teen drinking in general. "There's a reason there's a law against it. People our age think you have to have alcohol to have fun. Why do you have to be stupid to have fun?"
She knows one mother whose not-yet-21 son has already lost his license for driving under the influence. "The kids all think it is funny and everyone is doing it," Schreiner added.
Foley admitted that she had to pick up her now-adult daughter twice during high school because she'd had too much to drink.
"I always told her, I'd rather be mad than go to the morgue to pick her up," she said.
Sandstrom echoed those sentiments but cautioned again about what that's telling juveniles.
"I would rather kids call me - even as a principal, I don't care if it's my student or my kids - and say, 'I have a problem, and can you come get me?' Although I don't want to tell them drinking's OK. That's a slippery slope. It's a mixed message," he said. "So why does it keep happening? It's that societal thought: 'It's not as bad.'"
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at email@example.com.