Originally created 07/06/97

Teen-age drinking cases climbing



Everyone has been to this party.

Someone's parents are away for the weekend, the liquor cabinet is unlocked and every teenager who knows about it is there.

And as certain as the next dawn, the music will get too loud, the neighbors will complain, the police will show up and someone will get arrested.

Since 1992, the number of Columbia County cases involving minors in possession of alcohol has grown almost every year, from 108 cases five years ago to 322 in 1995. In 1996, the numbers dipped slightly to 304, but if the current trend holds true, 1997 should be another record year.

In the first six months of the year, already there are 231 cases on the books with no indication of slowing down, said Chief Magistrate David Huguenin.

Although the increased numbers may partly stem from heightened efforts of sheriff's officers to crack down on teen drinking, it seems certain the problem is not going away.

"The statistics only show the trend, not the magnitude of the problem," said Evans resident James Dow, father of 18-year-old Jeffrey Dow.

Tragically, Mr. Dow had to endure a painful eye-opening experience to gain insight into the problem.

In April, his son crashed the Dows' Jeep Cherokee on Washington Road, near Pollard's Corner, killing his friend, Russell Rosenkrantz, 19, a passenger in the vehicle.

The boys were returning from Thurmond Lake, where they and other friends had gathered to party and where alcohol was present, Mr. Dow said. Jeffrey now faces charges of driving under the influence and vehicular homicide in connection with that accident.

Like many parents, Mr. Dow and his wife, Judy, tried to find that fine balance between strict boundaries and trust, knowing they always couldn't be looking over their son's shoulder.

And until that terrible day in April, they thought it was working out.

"We were blissfully ignorant," Mr. Dow said, "I never dreamed such large groups of kids were going out to the lake and drinking."

Fortunately for most parents, the majority of alcohol-related cases involving minors are not as serious. And the consequences are not nearly as grim.

In most cases, first-time offenders found guilty of possession of alcohol receive a $180 fine, eight hours of community service and 60 days' probation, said Chief Magistrate Huguenin.

In addition, offenders are required to attend a life skills counseling course and write a 10page essay on "the evils of alcohol," he said. "They hate that more than anything."

Repeat offenders get another shot of the same medicine, except that the second time around the dosage goes up - $280 fine, 16 hours' community service, and a 20-page essay - along with more counseling and probation.

"We have a ton of (secondtime offenders)," Chief Magistrate Huguenin said. "But, very few are charged the third or fourth time."

The third offense almost always includes some jail time, something the chief magistrate stresses to those with more than one conviction.

And now, new state laws effective July 1 mandate revocation of driving privileges for minors convicted of alcohol possession or DUI, among harsher penalties.

Ann Wiggins, a licensed professional counselor, who deals with children every week who are sentenced to attend her course, believes most teens will get through their alcohol-related troubles fairly unscathed.

"These kids are not lost souls, and they have a great deal of insight," she said. "(However), some seem to get wrapped up in the crowd mentality."

This crowd mentality often manifests itself when alcohol is involved and teens test the boundaries.

"Kids are always experimenting with adult practices and not knowing their limits," Mr. Dow said.

But the way teens obtain alcohol is one of the most troubling aspects of the problem, he said.

Typically, they approach adults and persuade the grownups to do the purchasing.

"There are too many adults that don't take adult responsibility," Mr. Dow said.

And parents can only do so much to prepare and protect their kids. In today's society, every time their kids walk out the door, the parents lose control. And sometimes the worst thing possible happens.

"I remember the last thing we told them before they left the house was, `Have fun, but be careful,"' Mr. Dow said.

Alcohol involved

The number of cases involving minors in possession of alcohol in Columbia County:

1990 -- 269
1991 -- 229
1992 -- 108
1993 -- 168
1994 -- 262
1995 -- 322
1996 -- 304
1997 -- 231 (first six months)

Source: Columbia County Magistrate's Office