As prom and graduation approach, civic leaders look for new ways to discourage families from allowing teens to drink
For most of her life, Bridget Hegg has watched her parents mourn the loss of her teenage brother, Mark, who sneaked out with friends and died in an alcohol-related car wreck.
Today, Hegg, 17, a senior at Lake Forest High School, says she struggles to comprehend why so many adults enable — or even supply booze for — their children’s partying. Her parents had nothing to do with her brother’s death in 1996, but she knows others often dismiss the risks as nothing more than a teen rite of passage.
“I believe parents are a huge reason why underage drinking goes undetected,” said Hegg, who recently put stickers on beer cases at cooperating liquor stores as part of a national “sticker shock” campaign that warns people it’s illegal to buy alcohol for minors. With the arrival of proms, graduations and warm weather, community leaders are geared up for another prime party season. And more are taking a get-tough approach with adults who provide alcohol to minors, or who turn their backs to underage drinking, whether it’s on their property or not.
In Lake County, 24 municipalities — most recently Barrington and Lake Forest — have approved “social-host” laws that penalize any adult who allows a minor to drink or use drugs. Chicago’s social-host ordinance calls for jailing any “supervising adult” for up to six months if convicted of allowing teen drinking or possession of alcohol. Other communities including Wheaton, Oak Park and Alsip are hosting alcohol-free prom parties, launching educational campaigns or more aggressively enforcing laws already on the books.
In Naperville, a woman accused of throwing parties for high school students recently pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to a minor and was ordered to serve eight days in jail and placed on a year’s probation. Orland Park police plan to step up their presence near banquet halls hosting prom parties, while Downers Grove police will work with hotels, whose owners have been asked to contact authorities if they see teens congregating in a room. “With kids, it is so important to give a consistent message,” said Barbara Karon of Barrington, whose children are 15 and 18. “Kids are smart. When I was a kid, I was looking for loopholes.”
Karon serves on a coalition trying to enact social-host laws in every community. The laws differ slightly by town, but most include fines that grow higher with each offense. In Lake Forest, for instance, parents may be fined up to $2,500 for allowing teens to drink. Earlier this week, Lake County officials approved a social-host law that applies to unincorporated areas. Like the municipal ordinances, it broadens the definition of those who may be held accountable and the types of places where it can be enforced. Police may arrest a parent, baby sitter or older sibling deemed responsible for an event, whether it takes place at home, in a banquet hall or limousine or on a boat.
But not everybody is on board, as some critics find such laws intrusive. Proponents are likely to meet stiff opposition as they push a state bill that would be similar to the local ordinances. State law currently holds parents accountable for teen-drinking parties but only if someone is injured or dies as a result. In Barrington Hills, village trustees recently decided against pursuing a social-host law, deciding that the debate would be too divisive. Village President Robert Abboud said he does not believe that his affluent, equestrian community is ready for such a law.
“The argument that parents have, which is a well-meaning argument, is: Look, they are my kids. I can decide what to do,” Abboud said. “If they are drinking in my barn, I know where they are, and they are not driving and I know they are safe.” Proponents want a state law so there is no safe haven for teens bent on drinking or parents who condone it. Lake County’s social-host laws were initiated after the October 2006 deaths of Danny Bell and Ross Trace, both 18, who were killed in a car crash after leaving a party at the Deerfield home of Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell. The Hutsells were convicted of allowing underage drinking at their home and other charges.
Despite widespread attention to the case, “as time goes on, less and less of it comes to the forefront,” said Mundelein Police Chief Raymond Rose, who travels the state to support social-host laws. “So people are just back to where they were. Parents just have a hard time with this topic.” Mundelein police have arrested nine people since November, when its social-host ordinance was approved, including a man and woman accused of allowing their son to provide alcohol to his friends. The wife tried to run when police arrived at the home, Rose said. In Buffalo Grove, officials used their online police blotter to educate residents about new social-host laws after recent teen parties. On April 3 and 4, 36 people between ages 15 and 20 were arrested for unlawful consumption and possession of alcohol at two unrelated parties. At each home, a young man whose parents were not home held the party. The men, 18 and 20, face additional charges under the social-host law, according to police.
Officials also are trying to move beyond the usual message that condemns drinking and driving as they emphasize the dangers of alcohol on a child’s developing brain and increased risks of violence or sexual assault. Lake Forest officials believe they have made a difference, finding it much easier this year to raise $23,000 for an after-prom party. “Parents need to stand up to their children,” said Hegg, who lost her brother. “A lot of parents want to be friends.”