Island Forum: Helping to protect kids

By Dan Grausz

The city’s new Underage Drinking Ordinance took effect on Jan. 13.

Under this law, property owners and renters are generally held responsible for underage drinking occurring on their property, whether or not they approved it or even knew it was happening.

While some may view this “ignorance is no defense” approach as draconian, the simple fact is that we cannot continue to sit back and watch our children make wrong decisions because adults are able to avoid responsibility by looking the other way or not looking at all. Those wrong decisions not only place the children at risk, but jeopardize everyone else in our community who they potentially come into contact with.

Islanders really care about their kids. We see that in the schools, sports, music, at places like Youth Theatre Northwest and in our religious institutions. We also know that teens are not easy to deal with. Being smart does not translate into listening to what one is told. Many Island parents deserve medals for their skill, patience and devotion.

Parenting is a complex, challenging and often frustrating mission. Nevertheless, permissive attitudes around underage substance abuse can result in permanent damage to developing brains and increase the frequency of high risk behaviors such as impaired driving, binge drinking, unprotected sex and violence.

It is news to none of us that a few Mercer Island adults still allow or turn a blind eye to teen drinking. Justifications for this behavior include, “I’d rather have them drink at home where I can keep an eye on them,” “they are going to drink anyway,” or “if I ‘babysit’ them all the time, how will they ever learn?”

The new ordinance is founded upon solid prevention science. It makes it a civil offense to allow alcohol consumption (knowingly or unknowingly) by minors on one’s property. It holds legally accountable those few Island parents (estimated at under five percent) who provide a venue for most of the underage drinking that occurs in our community. One survey estimates that almost 70 percent of underage drinking takes place in a home setting.

The ordinance both acts as a deterrent ($250 fine and the social stigma) and creates an important opportunity for new dialogue and limit-setting in Island homes. The fact that parents play the single largest role in their teen’s decision to drink is often overlooked amidst developmentally appropriate, but frustrating, teen angst and rebellion. Although the ordinance can be seen as purely punitive, it has been implemented to support the vast majority of parents who already say “no” to underage drinking in their homes. Now, law enforcement has another tool to help these parents to effectively discourage other parents from aiding and abetting underage drinking.

The goal of the ordinance is to support an environment where it is easier to raise youth with healthy, intact brains and bright futures. By setting some hard limits now, our children have a better chance to take full future advantage of all the benefits afforded them by exceptional parents, schools and Mercer Island’s legacy of success.


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