Statistics show that a growing number of teenagers are trying alcohol at an early age and that more than 40 percent of Contra Costa County 11th-graders admitted to drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.
Parents, school and county officials are working to curb that number and are warning parents that they can be held accountable if they facilitate teen drinking.
Nearly 60 parents and teens attended a Town Hall style meeting Feb. 18 at Stone Valley Middle School designed to educate parents about the Social Host Ordinance. The ordinance, in effect in both Contra Costa County and in Danville, provides police with additional tools in handling a teen drinking situation and holds parents responsible in cases where they have actively participated in enabling teens to drink.
Renee Mencarelli, co-president of Community Against Substance Abuse, said that the problem is more widespread than believed.
"Don't think your middle schoolers aren't doing anything because they are. My husband and I live and walk through Blackhawk. People let their kids off at the movies and they don't even know if they went in," Mencarelli said.
She added that even though she loves and trusts her son she still checked for alcohol when he came home.
"He had to hug and kiss us. He thought it was because we missed him. It's because I wanted to smell," she said with a laugh.
The town hall meeting, co-sponsored by the Contra Costa Friday Night Live Partnership and District 3 County Supervisor Mary N. Piepho, presented the audience with a resource table with information about the Social Host Ordinance, as well as a number of other resources to help teens stay away from alcohol and drugs. Groups such as Friday Night Live, Youth to Youth and CASA provided information.
Then a panel discussion was held about the dangers of alcohol use by teenagers. Panel member Elmer Glasser, a Contra Costa Sheriff's Deputy, spoke about dealing with the aftermath of an alcohol related fatality accident and having to inform a parent that their son would not be coming home. "At one point she is beating on the front of my uniform yelling, 'How dare you?' She refused to believe that it was her son."
Glasser said the woman asked questions about what her child was wearing and slowly it began to sink in.
"That's as real as it gets," Glasser explained.
After the presentation, parents were encouraged to ask questions about how the ordinance would be applied. One person asked if a party was held at their house while they themselves were out of town, would they be liable.
"There is no civil liability for homeowners if they are out of town and a kid breaks in," Glasser said.
A trend in youth drinking parties is for teens to congregate in empty homes, or in houses where they know the owners are away. In cases like that, the homeowner would not be held responsible but if a teenager is found to be there and over the age of 18, it could apply to them. On the other hand, if the parent or a child of the household has given out entry keys or garage codes there could be some liability.
One parent said she feels the problem of teen drinking is being underestimated. The woman pointed to her own life, where she learned belatedly that her daughter and friends were drinking. She said that she learned that even at parties where drinking is not allowed kids have begun brining in alcohol in water bottles or throwing the full bottles over a fence and into the yard for later retrieval.
Emily Justice, Director of Youth for the Center for Human Development, said the parents who attended the event were not the ones they really need to reach.
"The ones who think it's OK to have their teenagers friends over and serve alcohol to them? They're the ones who are hardest to reach." She added, "I stand by that 99 percent of parents want to keep their kids safe. But you have people who just feel that this is something they can control."
Audience members were told to have frank discussions with their children about drugs and alcohol and to lead by example.
"I had one parent say to me the best way to teach your child to drink responsibly is your own behavior," Justice said.
Lauren Wood, a chapter leader with Friday Night Live and one of the coordinators of the event, delivered the closing address and exhorted parents to get involved with groups like Youth to Youth and Friday Night Live, and to take the time to get to know their kids.
"What you do really affects how we live our lives," she said.