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Addressing the problem

By Staff | Apr 8, 2010

The solution to stopping underage drinking likely rests in the hands of adults, but are they up to the challenge?

That’s one of the messages that came out of the ‘Town Hall’ meeting on underage drinking held April 7 in Rugby sponsored in part by the North Central Safe Communities Coalition. About 30 attended the gathering, including several representing law enforcement, the judicial system and school system.

Amber Jensen, Region 2 prevention coordinator with the N.D. Department of Human Services, provided some startling statistics about alcohol use by minors. According to the latest N.D. Youth Risk Behavior Study, one out of six students who filled out the survey admitted to drinking each month. And North Dakota continues to lead the nation in binge drinking among minors and adults.

These statistics have continued a trend in North Dakota over the years, but what can be done to break the cycle?

Parents, adults play key role

Children and teens often model their behavior after adults and until more adults reduce their drinking habits, and taker a harder stance against alcohol use by minors, little headway can be made in stopping this age-old problem.

“The greatest area of intervention is in the home,’ said Robin Gense, juvenile court officer.

Parents who suspect their children of drinking often are unwilling to address it, believing it’s a one-time occurrence. For others, they may not know what resources they have to turn to before it becomes a more serious problem, or their child gets into trouble with the law. Parents can contact a substance abuse counselor, or seek an alcohol evaluation for their child. However, that’s a big step many parents don’t want to take.

Indeed, parents have to play an integral role, and a lot can be accomplished simply through their own actions.

Limiting alcohol consumption in front of children is a start. Also, not allowing children to take a sip of beer or wine as “a reward.” Other ways include not making light-hearted comments about drinking or sharing stories about drinking experiences as teens or young adults. Even wearing clothing with alcohol brands can send messages to children about the importance of alcohol.

Bruce Gannarelli, Little Flower School principal, said the problem today is often parents want to be “friends” with their children more so than parents. That way parents avoid having to confront them on tough issues, and put their foot down.

“As educators, we believe kids are inherently good,’ said Jeff Lind, Rugby school superintendent.

Unfortunately, it’s the behavior and actions of others, often adults, that lead them to make bad or risky choices.

Educators believe that students are getting the information about the risks and dangers of substance abuse. It’s introduced at a young age and continues through their junior and high school years.

So why isn’t that message sinking in to more of them?

Again, part of the challenge is the mixed messages they see from society. Alcohol use is associated with good times and the centerpiece of social gatherings.

Until more adults change their attitude about alcohol, minors will continue to push to drink.

Law enforcement and the judicial system know the problem all too well. Police officers have stopped minors in possession or consumption of alcohol. And eventually, those offenders go through the juvenile system, receiving sentences of community service and in some cases, treatment programs.

Gense could not give an accurate number of underage alcohol-related offenses the regional juvenile system handles each year for Pierce County, but he did say the number is just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, for every one who is arrested, many others do not get cited.

What also is alarming, Gense said, is a vast majority of those stops by law enforcement for minor in possession or consumption, occur in vehicles, a tell-tale sign that teens are drinking and driving.

New steps are being introduced in the court system to help offenders from falling back into a pattern of drinking. They are not allowed to drink, or go into a bar while on probation for their offense, and in some cases, mandatory alcohol-drug testing is performed.

In Rugby and Pierce County, law enforcement are introducing more programs aimed at stopping underage drinking. Luis Coca, Rugby police chief, said his department recently conducted a compliance check of local bars/liquor providers. A person under 21 went into an establishment and attempted to purchase alcohol. They presented their legal ID and were under the supervision of a plain-clothes police officer. Five out of six establishments turned away the minor, which Coca said, was encouraging. More checks will be planned.

The department is also holding a first-ever server training program this week to work with bar owners and sellers of alcohol to keep it out of the hands of minors.

Of course their concern extends past just keeping minors from attempting to be served in bars. A majority of youth get their alcohol from adults, who buy it, or supply it.

There are stiff penalties for those who are found guilty of doing so, especially if their actions lead to serious injury or even death to a minor who consumed the alcohol. District Judge John McClintock said teens who do plead guilty to an alcohol-related offense are asked where they received the alcohol. However, not many are willing to reveal their buyers, which makes it difficult to prosecute those acting participants.

The police and sheriff’s department in the future will implement another program called, “the shoulder tap”. Again, a supervised minor approaches someone outside a bar or liquor store and asks if they would be willing to buy them alcohol. Those who do won’t be arrested, but will be notified by law enforcement of the illegality of their actions.

The program serves as a reminder that buying or supplying alcohol to minors is a crime. And that also extends to parents or adults who knowingly allow minors to drink in their homes, or on their property.

Resident Jeff Miller said its common knowledge to most parents that a graduation party takes place every year, usually out of town. At these parties alcohol is consumed. He asked what law enforcement can do to prevent these parties from taking place. Can they break them up?

Matt Lunde, Pierce Co. Sheriff, said that is a question often raised to law enforcement, but there has to be probable cause an illegal activity is taking place for law enforcement to come onto private property. They can’t simply go there without reasonable cause.

Of course, if law enforcement does have pretty good knowledge there is underage drinking taking place, they can contact the landowner. And if there is, they could get the owner’s permission to go on the property.

Perhaps one way the community can begin to change the attitude about alcohol use, is to inform more adults. Julie Sjol, guidance counselor at Rugby Jr.-Sr. High, wondered if the media could be tapped into to educate the community about this problem, and highlight how adults can help to stop it. Perhaps displays or warning notices could also be posted in public places and alcohol establishments about the legal, social and health effects of alcohol use.

In the future, bigger steps could be introduced such as drafting new public policies, including restricting the availability of alcohol in public places and even banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship at public events.

The April 7 “Town Hall” meeting appeared to be the start of a coordinated effort by the local Safe Communities coalition to tackle the problem of underage drinking.

However, there is long road ahead, and everyone in the community has to get on board, Coca said.

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