In the spring, many teens and young adults get excited about prom and graduation. Both celebrations are a right of passage and usually create a buzz with outfits and parties and all the little details that go into big events.
While we agree that celebrating is a fun way to end the school year, and send graduating seniors out into the world, there’s something else that often comes with these events: underage drinking.
We talked to Deputy Jim Engmark, the Community Liaison for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, about the consequences of social hosting, what the laws mean for adults, and how parents can talk to their children about it.
What is Social Hosting?
As the Community Liaison at the Sheriff’s Department, Jim connects with all different types of organizations within the community: “I'm the liaison between all the businesses, churches, and schools in the county.” He does public relations, but is also in charge of handling “mental health, suicide prevention, critical incidents, stress management, and crisis intervention.”
It’s safe to say he’s a busy guy.
But, for Jim, working within the community is important, and he cares about what’s going on with the youth in Johnson County. So when it comes to social hosting and underage drinking, Jim’s stance is straightforward: “All it's going to do is cause issues, in my opinion.”
The Sheriff’s Department also has a clear approach: “It’s illegal. We're bound by law, so we have to abide by it. We don't encourage it, or think it's right.”
But what exactly is social hosting? Simply put, it’s the act of serving or condoning alcohol use in social settings, such as the home. Adults usually act as social hosts. For instance, when a parent hosts an after-prom event in their home that involves alcohol.
It’s a well-known fact that drinking under the age of 21 is illegal, and social hosting, like after-prom or graduation parties where minors are consuming alcohol, is punishable by law. Jim notes, “For us, and law enforcement, Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor has always been the charge we've used for somebody supplying alcohol to an underage person.”
The charge of Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor comes with a hefty fine and potential jail time. “It's a Class B misdemeanor, which can carry a fine up to $1,000,“ explains Jim. This changes how adults may feel about hosting.
Not to mention other potential consequences that most of us don’t often think about.
What's the Big Deal about Social Hosting?
For adults over 21, having a couple of beers with friends isn’t a big deal. There are many adults who also don’t see a problem serving minors alcohol as long as they’re under direct supervision.
In Jim’s mind, the problem isn’t just the immediate action of having a beer or other alcoholic beverage. The actions the youth might take when they’re allowed to drink at home may cause bigger issues: “To me, that makes the minor think that it's okay to do it. Then they might go out and do it outside of that home or that place. They're going to get into a situation where they get hurt or somebody else gets hurt.” It might be one beer at home now, but that could easily turn into more beers or other alcoholic beverages somewhere outside of adult and parental supervision.
There’s also a risk in just one beer, too.
There are many factors adults may not be aware of when they tell a young person it’s okay to have a beer. For instance, medical conditions: “What happens if they’re [the minor] on a medication that exacerbates that alcohol, and then it makes them really sick? How is that going to make that adult feel if something like that were to happen?” Jim points out.
Adults may think “Oh, well, it’s just one beer” or “It’s just one little graduation party” - whatever celebration they’re hosting - but they rarely stop to think through potential risks. Of course no one wants to think that one beer could cause so much damage, but the possibility is always there, especially with minors the adult doesn’t know. Jim says social hosts “just don't think about it.”
As it turns out, not thinking about it can be a huge legal liability for adults. If adults “allow these kids to drink underage, and the minors slip out without the adult knowing” there could be serious consequences for everyone. Jim explains, the minor will often say “They [the adult] allowed me to drink at home, that's why I was drinking.” At that point, the adult(s) who served or condoned the drinking could be held liable.
That's a stressful situation. “You don't want that liability over you. It's a big deal,” notes Jim.
Not exactly a picturesque ending for an otherwise great celebration.
If adults are charged with Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, it’s a Class B Misdemeanor, which can negatively affect many parts of their lives. It’s not just a slap on the wrist. “It's a big deal. For a lot of people that can hurt them in their jobs. It can hurt them socially, and could hurt them and their families,” says Jim.
Ultimately, there are many unknowns and risks of being a social host to underage minors. It’s not just about “one beer” but the long stream of consequences that can arise from the alcohol.
Jim notes, “We want our youth to grow up and do things the right way, to do the right thing.” The right thing is about keeping everyone as safe and healthy as possible.
How Can Parents Talk to Minors about Alcohol?
While it’s one thing to talk with other adults about alcohol, it’s a different conversation entirely with youth. But, as Jim says, “First and foremost, parents need to be straight up with their kids. Don’t sugar coat it.” There’s no need to use scare tactics, but it’s important that minors know that there are real negative consequences of underage drinking - it’s not just their parents or guardians saying “no.”
There are other resources. Jim explains, “There are other avenues like Empower Johnson County” who work to “prevent youth substance abuse through advocacy, education, and enforcement” (Empower Johnson County).
The Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAHMSA) Talk. They Hear You. website is another great resource that aims to provide “parents and caregivers with information and resources they need to address alcohol and other drug use with their children early.”
If you’d like to learn about the “risks facing youth today and how you can talk about these risks in a supportive, productive way that youth will understand,” join Empower Johnson County for their Virtual Town Hall on Wednesday April 14, 2021 at 11:30 am - 12:30 pm.
You can register for the free event here.
Underage drinking has been a conversation for years, but many adults don’t consider the serious consequences social hosting can bring about. They don’t realize that Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor is a misdemeanor crime with a hefty fine and potential jail time - they just think about the “one beer” moment and assume everything will be alright. While no one wants to think about the negative possibilities, it’s important to do so to make good decisions and help our youth become responsible adults within the community.
Do you have thoughts about underage drinking? Or have an opinion to share? Join us for the Town Hall on April 14th. You can even request to have a specific concern or topic discussed by filling out the registration form here. Let’s have a conversation that will help our youth here in Johnson County for years to come.