Parents who host teen drinking parties targeted by new Mercer Island campaign
By ELIZABETH CELMS
Mercer Island Reporter Contributor
December 29, 2009 · Updated 12:16 PM
There’s a new drug-and-alcohol prevention message going around Mercer Island, and it’s for parents, not teens. The latest Communities That Care campaign (CTC) is an Island-wide fight against party “hosting,” when adults allow minors to drink at household parties.
The concept is not rare on Mercer Island. Some parents see hosting as a safe alternative to the more common scenario — teenage parties without adult supervision.
Yet Mercer Island Youth and Family Services counselors and city law officials do not support hosting by any means. First of all, it is illegal. Second of all, it sends a dangerous and wrong message, they say.
“Some parents use the rationale that ‘we’d rather have the kids drinking where we can keep an eye on them.’ We’re not necessarily saying that, given the choice, this is the wrong decision. What we’re saying is, look at the flip side and just don’t [host] at all,” said CTC project director Derek Franklin. “The other rational is the European culture argument: if kids know what it’s like to have some alcohol in their system, then they will deal better with drinking [in adulthood]. But this has simply been proven wrong.”
The overarching ambition of Mercer Island’s CTC campaign, which was initiated with an $83,000 federal grant three years ago, is to get all areas of the community involved in drug and alcohol prevention. This includes schools, religious organizations, businesses, social groups and parents.
“The message is fairly simple, but the application requires lots of things,” Franklin said.
Earning the cooperation of Island parents is a perfect example.
“One of our challenges is that the [perceived] impact that parents have is generally underrated,” the CTC director said.
The holidays is an especially susceptible time. This is why CTC has distributed a unique anti-drinking holiday poster throughout the community.
“Number one holiday gift: Safe and healthy kids. Most Mercer Island Parents agree, ‘Teens and alcohol don’t mix,’” the poster reads.
Similar posters were distributed earlier this year around other common “drinking times” such as homecoming and prom, said Franklin.
Yet posters are not the only way CTC is distributing its message. Law enforcement officers also seize the opportunity to educate youth and parents on the repercussions of underage drinking.
School Resource Officer Art Munoz reminds parents that the risks of hosting a party are serious indeed.
“There are always some parents who aren’t aware of the liability. Aside from being cited for furnishing alcohol [to minors], down line parents could be civilly or criminally liable, say if a kid gets onto a car accident or something. The investigation can show that drinking occurred at the house, and it comes back to the parents,” Munoz said.
According to state law RCW 66.44.270, “It is unlawful for any person to sell, give, or otherwise supply liquor to any person under the age of 21 years or permit any person under that age to consume liquor on his or her premises or on any premises under his or her control.”
Violation of this law is considered a “gross misdemeanor” and, according to Munoz, the punishment ranges from a citation and fine to jail time.
“Even if parents are not at the premises when the drinking occurs, it can come back to them,” the SRO officer said. “I try to pass the word along any time I’m teaching a class. I always try to mention that it’s a seriously bad idea to host parties.”
Yet subsections (1) and (2) of RCW 66.44.270 state that the law does “not apply to liquor given or permitted to be given to a person under the age of 21 years by a parent or guardian and consumed in the presence of the parent or guardian," which gives parents a level of lenience when monitoring their own child's introduction to drinking. Sharing a glass of wine with your 18-year-old over dinner, however, is quite different than watching television upstairs while he and his friends binge drink in the basement.
Munoz admitted that hosting does occur on Mercer Island. The officer recalled two cases, in particular, that came to police attention in the past year. And there may be more incidents that he is not aware of.
“If the case is against the parents, I probably won’t see it. I handle all the juvenile cases,” he said.
Yet the CTC campaign tries not to focus on the negative. Rather, the initiative focuses on messages of positive reinforcement.
“What we know from the [Healthy Youth Survey] is that more kids think it’s OK and normal to drink than there are kids who actually do drink. It’s a perceptual issue,” Franklin explained. “So our media campaign tries to close that perception gap. We end up saying something along the lines of, ‘Most MI kids aren’t drinking or using drugs.’ It reinforces the positive, rather than the negative, which as behavioral science people, we know works better to change behavior.”
It is an approach that has proven successful for communities across the nation; and one that Franklin has faith will hold true for Mercer Island as well.
Over the next few months, the Mercer Island Reporter will be highlighting various community efforts that play a role in CTC’s Islandwide initiative.