Oscar Wilde said “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” After three decades in law enforcement, it’s hard not to let cynicism creep into my work. Witnessing first-hand the painful price of bad decisions, time and again, is one reason for the cynicism. Police officers across the country will tell you, however, that holding back the tides of cynicism are the unique opportunities we have in our own communities to influence decisions and change thinking patterns before they end in irreversible consequences.
Cynicism isn’t a trait only found in law enforcement, however, it’s also found in parenting, especially through the tumultuous teenage years. When it comes to the topic of underage drinking, tell me if you’ve shared, thought or heard one of these sentences:
“They will do it anyway, safer for them to do it here under my watch.”
“They need to learn their limits before they move away.”
“They can fight for our country, they should be able to drink.”
“Being too strict leads them to more extreme behavior.”
“I did it. I can’t tell my kids not to do something I did at their age.”
I don’t call these statements realistic or practical, I call them cynical; demonstrating a lack of faith that our laws are, in fact, in the best interest of the child. This logic is deeply embedded in parenting circles today, sometimes from a parent’s own experience as a teen and how they were parented, sometimes the influence of one parent rubs off onto others’ thinking. Others think this helps them be the “cool” parent. No matter the reason, the outcome is where I, as a police officer, unfortunately enter the scene.
April is Alcohol Responsibility Month, setting the stage for prom and graduation season in May and June. Before tragedy splashes over headlines this spring, I’m asking parents to consider the evening from when I enter the scene. Far too often, parents only view the scene from the beginning of the night.
Maybe it starts with good intentions. Teens blowing off steam; celebrating prom or graduation. Rites of passage, marking milestones in their lives. A few friends invite a few more friends. Pictures begin to appear on Instagram. Some teens post snapchats. A neighbor sees parked cars they don’t recognize or a few empty beer cans scattered around the property. Often it’s a noise complaint that brings us to the scene. Sometimes it is the uptick in chatter on social media from the teens that catches our attention. Next comes the part of the story parents typically aren’t considering: the ending.
And how can it end? In Maryland in June 2015, it ended with two teenagers dead. A father was home during the party and, according to teens, he allowed the parties in his home regularly. In North Carolina in June 2014, a doctor and his wife hosted a wedding reception and provided alcohol to an 18 year old, who drove drunk and died. In Indiana in March, a photo posted on Snapchat led police to a house party where 60 juveniles were arrested for underage drinking. The parents were out of the country. In Kansas, earlier this year, a State Senator was charged with providing alcohol to underage students. In Arkansas in December 2015, a high school teacher hosted a party for 11 students under the age of 18 in her home. She has since lost her job. From where I stand, again, the cynicism surfaces, leaving me to wonder: At what point do we decide enough is enough? According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 53 percent of current underage drinkers reported family and friends as their source for the alcohol they consumed. Meanwhile, according to Responsibility.org, parents are the leading influence on a child’s decision to drink – or not drink – alcohol.
Parents hold tremendous influence in preventing underage drinking but they must consistently uphold the law. We all know federal law prohibits drinking under the age of 21. It’s not clear to me if, before agreeing to or turning a blind eye to underage drinking, parents realize that we have a complex patchwork of social hosting laws varying by state and in some cases, by jurisdiction within the state. The social hosting laws can have serious consequences for the parents, even when the evening doesn’t end in tragedy. Twenty six states across the country include the possibility of jail time for adults convicted of providing alcohol to those under 21. In some jurisdictions, parents can be held legally accountable even when they are not home. Right now the state of Maryland is considering enacting a new social hosting law in response to last summer’s tragic teen deaths.
While it is necessary for parents to know and understand their state law, it doesn’t preempt consistently upholding the federal law. This spring, we must all acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that underage drinking can have a tragic ending. Further, it is never a good idea to send a message to your own children that it is okay to break the law.
This Alcohol Responsibility Month, on behalf of my fellow law enforcement officers nationwide, I am asking parents to do three things: talk with your teens about alcohol, reinforce the law and remember that you are the leading influence in a child’s decision to drink – or not drink – alcohol. Never forget the scene at the end of the night from where I stand.
Steven Casstevens is the chief of police for Buffalo Grove, Illinois, the fourth Vice President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and sits on the advisory board for Responsibility.org. Find more tips on preventing underage drinking here.
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