Underage drinking in Suffolk County is out of control. As the holiday season unfolds, there will be ongoing social circumstances where alcohol and other substances will be available in large quantities to young people under the age of twenty-one.
Recently, we have been painfully reminded of the tragic consequences of drinking and driving. The most recent fatalities have involved underage young people. They were drinking and the young driver caused an accident while under the influence which took his life and the lives of his passengers as well.
However, it is also important to note that drinking and driving under the influence is not merely a teenage problem. It is a social problem that equally infects people over the age of twenty-one. To be honest, my informal observation this past year underscored more fatalities caused by drunk driving by people over the age of twenty-one than under the age of twenty-one.
My point is that we have a serious social problem that impacts the entire community. If we want to address it and develop solutions that work, the entire community must be consistently involved in the process of developing positive resolutions. Manufacturing new laws that are not consistently enforced will not address this problem adequately.
Take a look at history! We changed the drinking laws in the mid-80's. We have spent countless hours in our schools with a wide range of programs on the issues of teenage drinking and driving. Although I think we have been reasonably effective in convincing teenagers not to drink and drive, we have failed miserably in trying to convince them not to drink and drive if they are not of the legal age of twenty-one.
Why have we been so unsuccessful in convincing high school students not to drink if they are under the age of twenty-one? I think the major reason we have failed is that we are inconsistent in our enforcement of the law of the land. We make a million excuses for why we do not consistently enforce that federal regulation. When children under twenty-one are non-compliant, we rarely hold them accountable. When they are formally held accountable, we spend a lot of energy and money trying to beat the system.
Let's just look around us - there are plenty of examples of inconsistency and blatant non-compliance. Every high school and middle school in Suffolk County has a problem with underage drinking. Only a few schools have been bold enough to address this social problem openly and aggressively. Unfortunately, most of our schools respond to this concern with denial and four million excuses as to why it is not really a problem. Even though the Pride Survey and their own students have confirmed that teenage underage drinking is out of control.
If high schools and middle schools would tell the truth about the amount of alcohol they confiscate in any given school year, most of us would be shocked and appalled. What is more disturbing than the actual drinking events on campus is the way many of them are handled.
As an educator and former school administrator, no school wants the responsibility of being a babysitter for out of control teenagers. Most schools do not want the responsibility of parenting their students either. In that regard, they are absolutely correct. But unfortunately, we know that a growing number of parents are not parenting their children effectively. As educators, we cannot turn a blind eye to parental neglect and irresponsibility. It would be easier to turn one's head and not get involved. But, that would also be irresponsible on our part as educators.
It's very challenging to be a teacher today. If you take your job seriously, you're going to have to do more than just teach your academic area. As a teacher, you're going to have to consistently face these disturbing social issues that our students are wrestling with on a daily basis. As teachers, we are going to have to call our students and parents to greater accountability.
If we want to effectively address the problems around underage teenage drinking, there must be a collaborative effort on the part of our schools, our parents and our local community. We must agree to be mutually supportive of every initiative and must implement those initiatives consistently across the board. No one should be exempt from being held accountable.
In concrete terms, that means if the football team is caught drinking, they should be held accountable even if it jeopardizes their season. If the president of the student body is caught drinking at or before the prom and the consequence is that he or she should not walk with his or her class, then he or she should not walk with his or her class. If a fringe student was caught drinking before or during the prom, there would be no question about holding him or her accountable for his or her poor choices. There would be no hesitancy in expecting that he or she would pay the price for his or her choice.
Therein lies the problem. There is not mutual agreement on who should be held accountable and what the consequences for non-compliance should be. That inconsistency feeds and fuels our students' attitudes that our laws around underage drinking are ridiculous.
The laws are not ridiculous, but the enforcement of the laws are scandalously abused and neglected. When was the last time you heard underage drinkers getting arrested or even getting a ticket for consuming alcohol? Our new laws spell out all kinds of penalties for underage drinking that are rarely ever enforced.
Having another photo op to celebrate that Suffolk County is tough on underage drinking and drinking and driving is hypocritical, if the County is not committed to enforcing those laws consistently and equally. Our teenagers think they are a joke and almost laughable. I hear this every time it comes up in one of my sociology classes. If the laws are rarely enforced, why would you think the average teenager would comply with them, especially if he or she thinks the law is foolish in the first place?
Thus, getting excited about the new proposed Social Host Law before the Suffolk County Legislature seems like another exercise in futility, unless our leadership is going to insist that it truly be enforced when adults are found to be in non-compliance.
It seems to me, if we consistently enforced the laws that are already on the books regarding underage drinking, and parents and teenagers alike were dragged into court, were forced to pay higher fines, do community service and potentially have their driving privileges suspended, that might deter underage drinking. If parents were also drawn into the circle and inconvenienced, financially and time-wise, they might do a better job at parenting their children.
We don't need another law for politicians to have a photo op, but rather we need to work harder at implementing the laws already in place to keep all of us safe. This holiday season would be a great time to begin consistently calling our young people and their parents to accountability and responsibility.
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