Parents that party

It was shortly after 10 p.m. on a Friday night when a Harford County sheriff's deputy arrived at residence in Fallston responding to an anonymous parent's complaint that alcohol and pot were being served to minors.

Fifty or more cars filled the nearby streets. Alerted to the event by social media, high school students had come from as far away as Lutherville and Columbia to be there. In and around the home was a crowd of 70-100 kids, tables in the basement were covered with cans of beer and liquor bottles, and a strong smell of marijuana wafted through the air.

When the deputy approached the homeowner, Frederick Durst, 54, he told them "everything was fine." After the officer pointed out that it obviously was not and entered the backyard where at least a dozen youngsters had beer in hand, Mr. Durst yelled out, "the cops are here, get the (expletive) inside and lock the (expletive) door."

By the end of the evening, 28 teens were charged with underage drinking, and the homeowner and his wife were under arrest. The charge? Operating a common nuisance where drugs were provided to minors, a charge more commonly applied to crack houses than teen parties. Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said he is reviewing the Nov. 26 incident and that charges may yet be modified or others applied.

Nevertheless, such a large-scale event apparently condoned by parents would seem unusual — except that a nearly identical incident took place one week earlier. In that case, a party in nearby Joppa resulted in charges against 26 underage drinkers — after the homeowner, Jonathan Caudill, 44, who was in the house at the time, told the investigating officer he did not know a party was taking place.

"I found this statement to be unbelievable due to the fact that at least 60 people were present inside the house, there was loud music, and people were walking all over the house," Cpl. Eric Gonzalez later wrote in his report.

The incidents demonstrate that for some parents teen drinking and perhaps even marijuana use is not regarded as any big deal. An adolescent rite of passage, perhaps, or merely a weekend indulgence. But what makes the trend particularly alarming is that it's often not just that parents are looking away but that they are the ones providing the alcohol or drugs.

The common excuse given in such cases is that kids are apt to do this anyway, so isn't it better to have adult supervision? But usually such parties end with the intoxicated participants driving themselves home. Few homeowners are prepared to provide overnight accommodations to 100 or even to closely monitor behavior.

Will the parents be held accountable? Mr. Cassilly says he intends to make sure they are. Two years ago, the state legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor to provide alcohol to a minor instead of merely a civil offense. The measure also increased the maximum resulting fine to $2,500 for a first offense.

But it's hard to believe the end result will be anything more than a fine and a day spent in District Court. Even with recent drunk driving deaths (Maryland saw 12 percent more in 2009, bucking a national trend) and the backlash against caffeine-fueled alcoholic drinks like Four Loko, which are popular with young people, underage drinking is not widely regarded as a serious problem.

Yet the numbers suggest it is. About 1 in 4 high school-age Marylanders admit to binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks within two hours, at least once in the past 30 days. In Harford County, the numbers are even higher. Meanwhile, studies have shown that alcohol use is linked to one-third of all teen deaths.

It's all very well to hold teens accountable for their behavior. But the adults who enable and encourage such behavior need to pay a high price, too, or communities like Fallston and Joppa will continue to see their sons and daughters needlessly put at risk.

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