Taking a straight shot on underage drinking


April 04, 1999|By Mike Burns

IT'S NOT about "civil rights" or "parental control" or any of the other pathetic evasions employed by parents of some Westminster High School students suspended from clubs and sports because they were at a party where extensive underage drinking occurred.

It is about teen-agers honoring their pledge not to do so, as a condition of participation in extracurricular activities, and the Carroll school system holding them to that pledge.

It is about the multiplying dangers of underage drinking. And about the chilling attitudes of too many adults, who seem to view it as an expected rite of passage and of no concern to the schools. And about the disquieting remark that "at least it's not drugs."

Fact is, alcohol is the most widespread substance abuse problem among youngsters.

More than 60 percent of Carroll County high school seniors admit to binge drinking (five or more drinks). And more than half the seniors had a drink within the past month, according to a 1997 State Department of Education survey of adolescents who responded anonymously.

The number of Carroll minors referred to the juvenile justice system because of alcohol doubled from 1995 to 1997.

Nineteen people were killed in Maryland auto accidents caused by an underage drinking driver in 1996; later figures are unavailable.

Indictment of society

These figures do not indicate a momentary lapse, a temptation of one-time curiosity. It's a damning indictment of a society that tolerates juvenile intoxication and blatant violation of the law.

The national picture is equally discouraging.

More than half of cases in juvenile court primarily involve alcohol.

Teen-agers are involved in alcohol-related auto accidents at five times the rate of adults older than 35.

Alcohol addiction is much more likely for younger drinkers than those who wait until the legal age to consume alcohol.

Violence, date rape, unprotected sex and criminal activity are more common among underage drinkers.

School systems nationwide offer programs to educate youngsters to the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Some even start in kindergarten, with reciting the "Just Say No" message.

As early as fifth grade

In fifth grade, Carroll pupils get a hard look at the harmful effects of alcohol. That's none too soon, either. Among youths undergoing alcohol-abuse counseling at Junction Inc., a Westminster drug treatment facility, are some kids who began drinking at age 11.

There's a long list of possible responses to the mounting problem, in addition to repeated education. Many of these strategies were laid out at a recent statewide conference on combating underage drinking called by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: Tougher, more frequent, consistent enforcement of existing laws against underage drinking -- and adults who supply alcohol. More undercover tests of retailers, with stiff fines instead of warnings. Closer control of under-21 servers in bars and restaurants. Anonymous hot lines for tips to authorities about drinking parties. Greater response by law enforcement and commitment of prosecutors.

Most important is the need to shatter the community's complacency about underage drinking, to forge a public consensus that underage drinking is unacceptable.

Responsibility at home

While a lot of educators and youth workers may preach the message, the ultimate responsibility often lies at home.

Involving teens directly in anti-alcohol program planning and activities is also important.

Students Against Driving Drunk is a prime example of how young people stepped forward on the issue. Yet an emphasis on underage "drunken driving" has sometimes misdirected prevention efforts and misled teen-agers. (Recognizing a broader goal, SADD now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions.)

Lots of under-21 kids admit to frequent drinking but are quick to claim that they never drive drunk, that there's often a designated driver with them who doesn't drink (or at least not "too much.")

The validity of those adolescent claims may be suspect, but it shows that at least one piece of the puzzle is falling into place. The larger regret is that they are oblivious to the sad array of other problems linked to young illegal drinkers.

And that gets back to the job of parents.

Discouraging underage drinking should be a basic task of raising children. The family home should be a place for prevention, and punishment for violation. But the schools should also impose penalties, to emphasize the severity of this problem. That includes sanctions for kids who hang out with underage drinkers.

Parents should applaud that stand instead of asking the court to overturn it. A few students may have been judged unfairly. That's what the individual appeals process is about. But the message is a straight shot: Underage drinking is dangerous and illegal.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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