SCHOOLIES Week has earned a reputation as being a perilous and sinful environment for school-leavers.
Scenes of violence, binge-drinking, illicit drug-taking and sexual predation have become fodder for the mainstream news cycle.
One man, however, believes all that is changing.
Andy Gourley is the national co-ordinator for Red Frogs Australia, a support network for university students and school-leavers run by Christian volunteers known as the Red Frogs Crew, or “Froggers”.
As a 20-year veteran of Red Frogs, Mr Gourley is realistic when it comes to youth culture.
“We’ve never been of the opinion that Schoolies is right or wrong,” he said at this year’s Ignite Conference last weekend.
“For us, we’re very much realists – we follow the flow of youth culture.”
In spite of the negative connotations surrounding the annual rite, Mr Gourley believes Schoolies has evolved into a much healthier environment.
“What Schoolies is now, compared to twenty years ago… it’s chalk and cheese,” he said.
“There are fewer fights, alcoholic intoxication has dropped, sexual assaults have dropped, and students are looking out for each other a lot more.
“There’s a radical difference to back in the day where there were heaps of punch-ons and nothing to do but drink.
“They’re working out that waking up with peas and carrots on your shirt, your head feeling like a semi-trailer has hit it, and wondering why there’s a hole in your wall and a one-hundred dollars gone from your wallet isn’t the best option.”
Mr Gourley believes there has been a significant change in youth drinking culture.
“The last three (Schoolies) have probably been the healthiest we’ve done in twenty years,” he said. “There’s been a real shift in culture where there are a lot more people not drinking as much, and a lot more people not drinking at all.
“When you’ve got that critical mass, it helps the swing voters not get caught up with the Johnnos and the Shazzas – the big party starters.
“Instead, they’ll shift into whatever the majority is doing.”
For Red Frogs Australia, it’s about influencing that majority away from what has typically been considered the “norm” for Australians.
“Beer is our identity; it’s our security blanket; we can’t go to a party without something in our hand,” he said.
“Alcohol is the drug of choice for Aussies and it’s part of our DNA and identity.
“That part of our identity is not easily shifted.
“I’d say there’s a good thirty to forty per cent that aren’t in the heavy-drinking category, that are even almost in the non-drinking category – so there’s been a really big shift there which is quite amazing.
“But there’s still a solid slab of decent contributors to the work of Frogs down there.”
Red Frogs currently has 1500 volunteers from more than 459 different churches and parishes around Australia, and covers 17 different locations during Schoolies Week.
“Our teams live in the building and they go floor-to-floor doing random acts like making pancakes in the hotel rooms – I think we do about 100,000 pancakes over Schoolies Week,” Mr Gourley said.
“We put food in them while they do the pre-drinking – it gets us in the room to see who’s drank too much; who’s doing unsafe stuff around the balconies.
“We try and get there to prevent those situations from escalating.
“We have walk-home teams. We do more than 5000 walk-homes over Schoolies and that decreases the predation out on the streets, the sexual assaults, and it makes sure we get the schoolies home safely.
“We do entertainment zones as well.
“We set up big stages on the beaches and dance (the Schoolies) on the sand for five hours; again, that just decreases the pre-drink sessions, breaks up their night, and just wears them out on the beach having fun.
Mr Gourley also attributes a rise in the number of designated drivers to a healthier Schoolies culture.
“In this day and age the role of the Dezzie (designated driver) is so more much respected,” he said.
“If you’re shot-gunning Dezzie, that’s gold.
“You drive them home, you do the kebab runs, you stop them from getting evicted, whereas before, you were ‘soft’ and they’d force a beer bong down your gullet.
“Now it’s like ‘Oh, awesome, you’re looking after me tonight’.”
Red Frogs has adopted a culture of ensuring the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.
This utilitarian approach is perhaps not appreciated by all; however, it is difficult to deny its efficacy.
“How we describe Red Frogs is ‘like a fence at the top of the hill’, rather than the Ambulance at the bottom,” he said.
“We want to get there just in time, not just after time.
“We know what it’s like to be seventeen, and when you’ve had a few beers you can do some dumb stuff.
“For us, it’s about limiting the dumb stuff that they do, so that they can get through that period in their life where they can eventually grow a brain and make better decisions.
“It’s very multi-layered, but it’s positive peer role-modelling.
“Most of our Froggers are 18-25 themselves, and they’re in those party situations not drinking like a fish and not trying to sleep with everything that moves, but rather demonstrating how to have a great time and look after yourself in that environment.”
As Schoolies Week approaches, Red Frogs Australia is running a pre-Schoolies education campaign for more than 62,000 Year 12 students, which Mr Gourley said was “critical to the positive culture change we’re experiencing”.
“We’ve got seven weeks to go until Schoolies, so we’re doing about 180 high school presentations in schools all through Australia, and then we hit Schoolies Week,” he said.
In addition to Schoolies Week, Red Frogs Australia will be lending a hand to lager louts during the 2018/19 summer of cricket.
“We’re partnering with (Cricket Australia’s) Know When to Declare program, which is designed to make venues more family-friendly by just limiting the effects of people who do like one or two beers too many,” he said.
“We get in there and rehydrate them, put sunscreen on them, and hit them with a few Icy Poles.”