Monday, June 4, 2007

The Law and Ethics of Parental Complicity in Underage Drinking

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I'm always interested in what my blogging friends (particularly over at PrawfsBlawg and Conglomerate) with young children are experiencing, but as the saying goes, small children, small problems, big children, big problems.  My son James graduated from high school on Friday night.  He goes to a small private school in Indianapolis, and one of the perks of the relatively ungodly tuition is that the Maddlogo ceremony is elegant and tradition-laden.  The school is over hundred years old, and is the result of a merger of a boys' school and a girls' school.  The boys wear tuxedos (the old-fashioned simple kind) and the girls wear long white dresses and carry long-stemmed roses (as has been the custom for one hundred years).  The addresses were heartfelt, touching, interesting, and brief.  There was a dinner and dance afterwards attended by students, parents, faculty, and administration.

So far, so good.  While completely unofficial, there was to be an all-night party at the home of one of the senior parents out in one of the exurbs.  And this is where the issue of law and norms comes into play.  There is no question that the consumption of alcohol by anybody under twenty-one in Indiana is illegal.  Indeed, it's a interesting legal position because one is a minor for purposes of the alcohol statute, even though one has majority for purposes of liability under it.  Yet underage drinking is one of the dark sides of affluent schools and communities.  The solutions come hard.  Some parents believe that they will not be able to stop their children from drinking and thus attempt to control it by allowing at home with restrictions on driving (i.e. taking the car keys away).  The problem is particularly acute after proms and graduations.  We understood that there would likely be drinking at this party, but the plan was that the parents would take away car keys and the students would be essentially locked down for the night.

James is eighteen and responsible.  As far as we know, he has never had a drink (he's diabetic, for one thing, and alcohol messes the hell out of your blood sugar).  And even though he is eighteen, he asked us if he could go to the party because a number of his friends were going, promising us that he did not intend to drink there.   But he didn't stay all night.  He got home at 2:30 a.m., and told us that the police had already been called, and had surrounded the property by time he got there.  He and his friends stayed for a while, and then were told by the police (who were waiting for a search warrant to be able to go inside and look for the booze) that they were free to go if they took and passed a breathalyzer test (which he and his friends did).

We woke up Saturday morning to find the party at the top of the local news - the father is a well-known public figure.  He had been booked for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and released on bail, and several of the students were arrested for underage consumption of alcohol.

Here are a number of thoughts:

1.  I had an initial "that's them, not us" reaction.  I would never have hosted a party in which it would be acknowledged that underage drinking was going on.  But I keep having this feeling of complicity because we acquiesced in James going at all.  I have rationalized it a dozen different ways, but I would have felt better about myself if I had called the other parent (who I do not know personally) and said, you really should have this party without alcohol.

2.  We learned afterward that the town in which the party was held was on alert for post-graduation parties - indeed, the county sheriff had a "Party Crashers" campaign, telling people that they could expect to be busted.  Moreover, the local high school quarterback was critically injured in a DUI accident last week (blood alcohol = 0.09) so there was heightened sensitivity.

3.  The sheriff was on local television yesterday, and what he had to say sounded reasonable to me.  I paraphrase pretty closely.  "These are not bad people, but they have done something foolish, and I want to talk to them.  I don't see an exception in the law about providing alcohol to minors if you do it in a home and take away car keys.  I would rather deal with this situation in this way [i.e. busting the party early] than have to see parents to tell them that their children have been injured or killed in a car accident."

4.  I was on the board of directors of the school for four years.  First, as to this incident, there is little the school can do.  Those involved had all received their diplomas hours before.  But there is an ongoing question of the school's jurisdiction over, or its ability to oversee, the activities of students off the campus.  (As to the former, there is little doubt that anything done off-campus that harms the school or its students is subject to the school's disciplinary processes.)  I have advocated for a number of years that the answer is not regulation from the school but a "parents' compact" in which families pledge to each other that their homes will be drug and alcohol free zones for the children.  The pledge would be backed by peer pressure, not law.  Again, I have overheard parents (for example, sitting behind me at a lacrosse game) justifying allowing the children to drink "under supervision" because it "teaches them how to deal with it" before they go off to college and are unsupervised.  But the MADD statistics (admittedly unscrutinized) say that allowing drinking in that way increases the likelihood of later problems.

5. Alene and I have repeated this axiom a number of times:  "Your children are going to make mistakes.  You just hope against hope that the mistakes are small ones, and that they do not get hurt."

6. As a public service, here is a link to MADD's page on underage drinking.

Law & Society | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Law and Ethics of Parental Complicity in Underage Drinking:


Wearing my 'cynical European' hat for a moment, it seems that most of the risk to do with the (illicit) enjoyment of alcohol in this case arises from the obligation on the children to drive. Planning and development, through zoning laws and the commercial fabric, are complicit in creating an inorganic, inhospitable landscape for the practice of society. Where I grew up in my - pretty large - town, we could either walk or take buses to anywhere we needed to, and weren't subject to the alienating pressures of identical subdivisions and the need for motorized transport. Sure, it's no fun taking a Les Paul copy and a Fender Twin Reverb on a bus, but we thought it built character. It may have been instrumental (augh) in my switch from keyboards to guitar for several of my teen bands, however. Try getting a mellotron, a Hammond B3, a Fender Rhoses and a MiniMoog up on the top deck of a West Yorkshire County Council Number 53 (to Meanwood).

Posted by: simon Pride | Jun 4, 2007 11:26:12 AM

Post a comment