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Tracking teen drinking

Four Saturdays ago, a car full of teenagers — one of them an Islander — nearly ran over a police officer while driving recklessly near West Mercer Way on S.E. 30th Street around 1:45 a.m. Moments later, police stopped the car and arrested the young driver for a DUI. The other passengers, who were all under 21, were arrested for being minors in possession, a crime that usually picks up around this time of year, according to Island police.

The Reporter recently looked at data compiled by the police department and its own record of police reports dating back to January 2007. According to the most recent numbers from the Mercer Island Police Department, there were 12 MIPs for those ages 18-20 and 26 juveniles were arrested or cited for using alcohol since January 2007. During that same time period, three adults were arrested or cited for furnishing liquor to a minor on the Island.

According to Mercer Island police detective Art Munoz, late spring is a time when police tend to find and arrest more teens for drinking than other times of the year.

“[Teen drinking] usually picks up around this time,” said Munoz. “It’s right after spring break, and kids are going out more or there are more events taking place where they might be drinking.”

Based on the record in the Reporter’s police report, there have been a few recent MIPs. Some of those arrested are Island youth, but teens from Bellevue or other nearby cities are also caught drinking in Island parks after hours, are arrested at house parties or pulled over by Island police after drinking.

This week’s police report includes an incident about an older teen who hosted a party and was cited for furnishing alcohol to minors in addition to an MIP.

There’s three common ways teens get alcohol Munoz, who is also the school district’s School Resource Officer.

“Teens usually get alcohol one of two ways,” said Munoz. “They’re either getting it from somebody older or they go over to a store in Seattle and try to get it themselves, sometimes with a fake id. They can often times get it from their own homes.”

According to Munoz, each MIP arrest, which is a gross misdemeanor, is handled based on the given situation.

“Sometimes we take them down to the station and process them so they’re photographed and fingerprinted,” said Munoz. “But if it’s a large party with maybe more juveniles than the police want to bring to the station, then the parents are called and they’re released at the scene. In both cases, the incident is documented, and the youth are released to their parents, eventually.”

Once busted, the police, court and schools begin to work together to limit the chance of the youth becoming a repeated offender. Each juvenile MIP arrest or citation is forwarded to Munoz who also contacts the school. Youth and Family Services are also involved with its early intervention program. According to YFS director Cyndy Goodwin, the Island program helps youth complete the program before a judge orders them to do so.

“Since we are a small city, it’s likely a youth case is sent to the Bellevue committee. It could take months before a youth is even seen in court,” said Goodwin. “Our early intervention program is that police ask the family if they can give the students name to YFS to get the same services on a quicker scale. It shortens the time the kids deal with the issue and court.”

If a teen decides against diversion and is convicted of the crime they loose their driver’s license for a year. But “you don’t see that often,” said Harnish, who has been counseling Island youth for a decade.

Periodic surveys show Island youth drink consistent with national norms, and there are definitely times when youth get hurt because of alcohol consumption. For instance, an 18-year-old high school student was injured in a roll-over collision in the 6700 block of West Mercer Way around 6:50 p.m. last January after she was drinking at a friends house earlier that afternoon. While the young woman was taken to the hospital for her injuries, she was also later placed under arrest for a DUI. There was also the tragic accident in September 2005 that left one Island teen partially paralyzed and broke another’s leg.

According to Youth and Family Service drug and alcohol counselor Chris Harnish, who works out of the high school, most teens don’t get caught when they drink. It was prom last weekend, and while some teens may have celebrated by drinking, the community continues to remind teens of the dangers of alcohol and drug use.

“The messages are definitely out there,” said Harnish, “but what they do with it varies widely.”

Harnish said the high school asks students to participate in a anonymous drug and alcohol use survey to gage current use. According to the results of a survey taken in April 2007, about 70 Island seniors, 55 sophomores and less than 10 eighth graders said they had drank alcohol. Conclusions of the survey stated alcohol consumption on the Island is similar to the national norm while marijuana use among high-school students is significantly higher than national norm, particularly among high-school boys.

Some teens say they often drink in the woods or the car before attending an event, such as a basketball game or school dance. There are also the youth that use or experiment with drugs. According to Harnish, those Island teens that choose to use often drink alcohol or smoke marijuana. Methamphetamines, psychedelics and ecstasy are there but just not used by most, he said. Munoz concurred that teens are typically caught for drinking or smoking marijuana by the by police.

According to Harnish, it isn’t always the drinking or smoking that is the greatest concern, it’s the amount of consumption during a night.

“Binge drinking is our biggest problem here,” he said. “Alcohol and marijuana two most popular drugs and while rare to see kid get more than one MIP, we are worried about how much a teen may choose to drink not knowing the consequences.”

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