Underage drinking busts not uncommon

Underage drinking busts not uncommon

May 13th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane and Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News


One in five teens binge drinks. But only one in 100 parents believe their teen binge drinks, according to the Institute of Medicine National Research Council of the National Academies.


In 2009, underage customers consumed 15.8 percent of all alcohol sold in Tennessee. In the same year, underage Tennesseans consumed an average of 4.1 drinks, while legal customers drank only 1.3, according to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which researches underage drinking.

POLL: Should police send underage drinkers to jail?

Headlines from Wednesday morning:

Delaware lawmakers OK same-sex marriage

Police facing questions in 3 women's Ohio rescue

20 killed in gasoline tanker explosion near Mexico City

But the undisputed talker in Chattanooga: 17 teen partygoers arrested.

Just look inside Hamilton County General Sessions Court any given day, says attorney Lee Davis.

Figures from the National Institute of Drug Abuse show the extent of the problem nationwide.

Seventy-two percent of teenagers have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the time they leave high school; 37 percent have drunk alcohol by the eighth grade, according to the institute.

Police reports show that some of the private-school students were chased through the woods on Signal Mountain by officers, and the ones caught were handcuffed along with those who gave themselves up. All were taken on a paddy-wagon ride down the mountain to county jail. The booking lasted hours into the early morning, police records show.

Most teens are just given a citation and told to show up in court, said Davis, a local defense attorney who said he catches these types of cases every spring around graduation time from all over the area.

"It's unusual to have them herded up," said Davis, who is representing one of the students involved. "There can be a more measured response, as opposed to creating a round-up atmosphere."

But police say there's value in sending a strong message to offenders.

Teens who get off with just a citation and a slap on the wrist from the courts may be apt to repeat the mistake. Handcuffs and a visit to the county jail make them "sweat it out," said Signal Mountain Police Capt. Scott Ogrodowczyk. They'll think twice next time.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "They have their whole lives ahead of them. We don't want to see them lose that or get sidetracked."

The mugshots of the 10 students who are 18 or older quickly became an online spectacle. Some of the girls appear to have been crying. A mascara stain runs down one cheek. The boys' faces are sullen and defeated. One girl is smiling.

Critics and defenders faced off with online comments.

If the charges stick, the misdemeanor of underage drinking will only remain on their record for six months, Davis said. Community service and educational classes are often required by the district attorney.

The long-term effect comes with the public humiliation, the long lifespan of Internet images and news stories.

"Regardless of the school a child goes to or the profession of their parents, no person should have to suffer this sort of harassment over something that happens all the time," one woman wrote online.

The students busted on Signal Mountain drew extra scrutiny because they were enrolled at the most elite private schools in town and come from privilege, said Tricia Henderson, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's coordinator of alcohol, drug and mental health education.

"I don't think anyone is shocked they were drinking," she said. "I think what [people] like to see is that someone has failed."

"It's more about who they are."

Still, only some get caught, the same way not all speeders get pulled over.

"You don't catch every fish when you go fishing," said Gail Chuy, principal at East Hamilton Middle/High School, the biggest school in the county.

The effects of weekend drinking rarely trickle over into school, Chuy said. But in an age of information, nothing is a secret.

And one mistake could haunt students through their adult lives; their mug shots, too.

"It's out there for the whole world to know," Chuy said. "Everything gets reported."

Chuy said she sympathizes with the embarrassment the teens and their families no doubt endured.

But that's not to say drinking shouldn't be taken seriously.

Casual drinking can lead to too much drinking. And alcohol opens up an array of new dangers, from dating to driving.

Each day, 27 Americans die from drunken-driving crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The same group estimates that 4,700 people die each year as a result of underage drinking.

Binge drinking has become especially worrisome on college campuses. Posters litter the libraries, and speakers come to talk about the dangers of binge drinking. Some offer free buses at night or walking escorts to make sure students make it home safe at the end of the night.

Many colleges, UTC among them, now require an alcohol education course as a condition of enrollment.

And violent crimes often include an undercurrent of drugs and alcohol, said Officer Nathan Hartwig, a Chattanooga Police Department spokesman.

Underage drinking isn't the most common complaint officers deal with on Friday or Saturday nights, Hartwig said. But officers do take it seriously when they find it. They have discretion on whether to write a citation or arrest offenders, he said.

"For the most part, if we come upon a party with underage drinkers, we're going to arrest them," Hartwig said.

Much enforcement of underage drinking often centers on making sure retailers aren't selling to minors, said Mallie Paschall, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation's Prevention Research Center.

Many still hold the belief that underage drinking, especially in the college years, is just a part of growing up. But attitudes are changing.

Just look at the law books, Paschall says.

The drinking age was raised in the 1980s. And enforcement of age restrictions has ramped up at bars, liquor stores and convenience stores. Colleges have banned alcohol on campus. And cities now are passing social host ordinances to punish adults who allow teens to drink at home, whether the grownups are home or not.

"You can't just say, 'Hey, I didn't know what was going on,'" he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249. Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.