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The "Schoolies" documentary parents will watch through their fingers.

Schoolies. If you’re a teenager in your last year of high school or the parent of one, it’s a huge deal. HUGE.

The discussions and debates about where to go and what’s allowed start months and sometimes even years ahead of time. (Gold Coast, Byron Bay… Bali? Will you buy me alcohol? Do you have to drop me off? Yes I will call you every day PROMISE.)

The tradition started in the 1970s when private school kids would head to the Gold Coast for a few days of fun and freedom. But now it’s grown into a multi-million dollar industry and a rite of passage for tens of thousands of young Australians.

inside schooliesCavill Avenue at Surfers Paradise. Image via Schoolies.com

This year, an ABC documentary team has bravely gone where many fear to tread – behind the scenes with the 17 and 18-year-old schoolies of 2014 on the Gold Coast and in Bali. The result – “Inside Schoolies” – is a window into a world that every parent anxiously wonders about. Is it really as bad as the headlines make out?

To answer that question, we follow five different groups of schoolies willing to guide us through what they hope is the best week of their lives.

We meet Zeke, a gorgeous outgoing lad who’s the first one in his family to finish high school, and his Dad is so proud. “I’m not silly. I know he’s gonna get drunk, he’s gonna get wasted,” Zeke’s dad Chris says. “My concern is I want him to come home from schoolies. I know that he’ll be fine, because I know his mates, and I know that they look after each other.”

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The trailer to ‘Inside Schoolies’. 

Elsewhere, in a tiny town in Central Queensland, Chelsea and her girlfriends are beside themselves with excitement – they are the first kids in their town to ever go to schoolies. “I’ll snapchat you from the Gold Coast,” Chelsea assures her worried mum. But savvy mum is two steps ahead – she’s already friend-requested Chelsea’s mates Kaitlyn and Nicola to keep an eye on them all. “That is so not happening!” Chelsea replies, horrified.

Parental concern is justified given the rare but tragic incidents that have happened on the Gold Coast in the past (most distressing was the death of Isabelle Coleman in 2012). But despite that, our team has discovered the schoolies experience in Surfers Paradise is a very well-oiled machine. The Queensland Government spends millions of dollars each year coordinating an official response to the influx of 22,000 partying teenagers, alongside well-established private agencies that book accommodation and host parties for them.

One of the infamous Schoolies beach parties. Image via Schoolies.

“Schoolies is Schoolies, these kids are coming no matter what,” says Mark Raeburn, Chair of the Gold Coast Schoolies Advisory Group. “You certainly can’t attempt to say ‘No Schoolies’. You can’t close Surfer’s Paradise, you can’t close the airports, and you can’t stop the accommodation providers from making the rooms available,” he explains.

The schoolies we follow are pretty surprised by the tough rules imposed as part of the response – things like a limit to two visitors per hotel room, no glass on the premises, and strictly no public drinking.

Chelsea from Central Queensland thinks the hotel rules are “ridiculous”.

“It’s just too far. There’s bond money for a reason, so if you have friends over, if they break it, that’s our responsibility,” she says.

Surfers Paradise. Image via Schoolies.com

The tough restrictions and high prices are turning some teenagers off the Gold Coast altogether. Two of our schoolies groups have decided to head to Bali for their end of school celebrations.

“The hotels in Bali are so much cheaper. And I really want to go see another country, and mix into the culture,” says Tamara from New South Wales.

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“And I guess there aren’t as many rules in Bali, which could be a good thing or a bad thing!”

Tamara’s mum is definitely worried about her going, but trusts her daughter to make the right decisions and keep in touch. Other schoolies we meet are only allowed to go to Bali on the condition that their parents go with them.

A Red Frog volunteer at Schoolies.

One of the biggest concerns for parents is the risk of methanol poisoning from bootleg local liquor known as arak. Australian mum Lhani Davies, who lost her 19 year old son Liam to methanol poisoning almost two years ago, is also in Bali for Schoolies Week to raise awareness about the risks.

“By the time these bottles are hitting the bars they look like the real McCoy: labels, packaging, everything looks 100%,” she says.

The schoolies we speak to have heard about the local alcohol.

“We had just about every single teacher talk to us about it, saying ‘you’re going to have a good time, but make sure you are careful and watch out for methanol poisoning’,” says Stuart from Western Australia.

While Bali is the new frontier, the Gold Coast is still by far the most popular schoolies destination.

“The kids are actually really good kids,” says Senior Sergeant Ben Nielsen of the Gold Coast Police, back for his thirteenth schoolies in Surfers Paradise. “The myth that schoolies is this really bad violent place is really disappointing and unfortunate. We’d prefer it wasn’t in this number, that it was more manageable, but the kids are having a great time and on the whole they are pretty well behaving themselves.”

“Inside Schoolies” gives Aussie teenagers a rare platform to speak candidly about issues like alcohol, sex, drugs and mental health, which worry parents everywhere.

And it might remind those of us who finished high school long ago, just how exciting, liberating and daunting being on the cusp of adulthood can be.

INSIDE SCHOOLIES: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE is screening at 8.30pm on the ABC tonight and will be immediately followed by AFTER SCHOOLIES: LIVE WITH TOM TILLEY on ABC2, a live (AEDT) forum filmed from the Gold Coast that will investigate the issues raised in the documentary. #schooliesyolo

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