Parents’ guide to the teen party scene

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For teenagers and their parents, spring means more than just robins and blooming flowers. It also means the start of the teen party season, with proms and graduations setting off a string of celebrations.

It’s an exciting time for teenagers, for sure. But it’s also a potentially dangerous time, given the frequent use of alcohol at those parties and the havoc that often results.

party scene prom drink W“We know teenagers will be faced with parties this time of year,” says Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, a non-profit organization that focuses on alcohol and drug prevention and education in Howard County. “We know they’ll be having to make important decisions — such as, do they drink or not.”

The facts underscore the importance of those decisions:

  • Some 4,300 youths younger than 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Children who drink alcohol are more likely to use other drugs, get bad grades, get hurt or die, engage in risky sexual activity and other unsafe behavior, and suffer health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders than children who don’t, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
  • Underage drinkers risk damaging their developing brains and are more likely to grow up to be alcoholics, studies have shown.
  • Nearly one in four people ages 12-20 (23 percent) reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days, according to a 2013 SAMHSA study, but the figure is higher in some local counties. A 2013 Anne Arundel County survey of the same age group put the figure at 27 percent.

“It’s definitely a public health problem for teenagers,” says Anne Arundel County Department of Health Prevention and Education Supervisor Heather Eshleman. “Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture, a lot of people don’t recognize it as a problem. But it is.”

Here to help

Fortunately for teens and their parents, there is a huge effort by nonprofit and government groups on both the local and national level to help them navigate the teen party season.

HC DrugFree, for example, works closely with schools and parent groups in Howard County to get out information about the hazards of teenage drinking. In March, the group hosted two information programs on how to stay safe and sober during Senior Week in Ocean City. The first program attracted about 250 teens and their parents.

The Howard County police, meanwhile, use social media and mass mailings to remind parents of the legal and safety hazards of underage drinking. They warn teens that they could face criminal charges for possessing alcohol and lose their driver's license with a DUI conviction. And they warn parents they can be fined up to $2,500 for providing alcohol to minors (other than their children) and could face civil charges as well if the minor later has an accident.

In Anne Arundel County, posters and decals that carry the message, printed in bold red-and-black capital letters, “Parents Who Host Lose the Most” blanket the county. The signs are in grocery stores, restaurants, liquor stores and more, and warn parents that if they host alcohol-fueled teen parties, they stand to lose a lot — money in fines if they are caught by the police, civil lawsuits if youngsters are hurt and, worst case scenario, their child.

“Our primary message is that alcohol is very accessible in the home, and parents need to be vigilant,” says Sandy Smolnicky, prevention specialist with Anne Arundel County's Department of Health’s Prevention and Education Services.

Busting the parties

Party scene jail wWhen police hear about parties in progress, they visit the party and, if they find alcohol, investigate the source, says police department spokesman Lt. Ryan Frashure.

“We see this as a problem because, first of all, it’s illegal,” Frashure says. “Second off, it leads to so many other issues — drinking and driving ... more sexual assaults, other assaults, loud noise complaints, parking complaints, all sorts of trouble.”

While parents or other adults can be charged with providing alcohol to minors, Frashure conceded that the charges are tough to prove and therefore rare. The county has had better luck charging minors caught drinking. In 2014 and 2015, a total of 86 alcohol-related citations were issued to juveniles, according to Frashure, who said the citations carry fines up to $500.

To discourage post-prom and graduation hotel parties, Howard County police notify local hotels and motels that it is illegal to rent rooms to anyone under 21 and ask them to contact the police if someone tries to rent a room for minors. In Anne Arundel, police boost patrols around school parking lots and hotels and near proms and other likely gathering spots for teens.

“We want young people to be able to celebrate important milestones, like prom and graduation,” explains Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. “We just want them to do it safely, and we don’t want to see them get into legal trouble that could have a long-term effect. ... Police officers know firsthand the anguish of knocking on a parent’s door to deliver the worst news a mom or dad could ever hear.”

Concerned citizens in both counties can also help by calling a confidential phone line if they have information about underage drinking parties, which police say can help squelch the parties before they happen. In Anne Arundel County, the phone number is 443-390-TIPS (8477). In Howard County, the number is 410-313-STOP (7867), but police urge residents to call 911 if they see underage drinking in progress.

While the citations along with extra patrols and party busts help, everyone concerned about teen drinking agrees that a multi-pronged, group effort is essential, one that redefines what is acceptable behavior and involves parents and teachers, police and health officials, and even the teens themselves.

“We need everybody’s cooperation,” Frashure says. “This is so important. It saves lives. ... Every year it seems we have these tragedies where these kids get in an accident where alcohol’s involved. It’s just tragic.”

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