Underage parties put teens, hosts, at risk
On an Island where working hard and playing hard is a virtual creed, where local teenagers often work side by side with college kids on summer break, and where small town police departments deal with a population that swells ten-fold in the summer, underage drinking parties are a serious problem, according to law enforcement officers and health specialists who deal with the issue here on Martha's Vineyard.
"With the onset of cell phones," said West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey, "a party can happen in 15 minutes."
While the world of instant communications poses new problems for police, they are also battling an old attitude: parents who believe underage drinking is a "rite of passage," and resent a middle-of-the-night call from a police officer enforcing laws their children have broken. Anecdotal evidence indicates that in some cases, parents are supplying alcohol, or supervising underage drinking parties in their homes, in the belief that it is a safe alternative. Though the lack of reliable statistics makes it impossible to gauge the scope of this phenomenon, some believe it contributes to higher than normal rates of underage drinking here on the Island.
"Time and time again we hear from parents, and people in the community, that this is what is going on," said Theresa Manning, youth task force coordinator for the Dukes County health council. "People think it's the responsible thing to be doing, to oversee this activity, when in fact, it's very much not." The task force is currently surveying Island parents to gather more information about the scope of the issue, and their attitudes toward underage drinking.
Chief Toomey points out that there are issues beyond public safety to be considered. She was disappointed at the attendance for a recent parent forum she organized, to explain the developmental health risks associated with underage drinking.
"It's a whole chemistry lesson, never mind a psychology lesson," said chief Toomey. "It takes 20 years of moderate to heavy drinking for problems to start showing up in an adult. The same kind of drinking in a teenager, it can be less than four years."
According to research compiled by the American Medical Association, brain damage from alcohol abuse to people under the age of 20 can be long-term and irreversible.
"Short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects," according to the report.