Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

 Attorney Mark Churchill and Mercer County state’s attorney Meeghan Lee addressed questions about underage drinking at a recent forum held at Sherrard junior/senior high school.

Underage drinking labeled “epidemic”

By Cathy Decker/Correspondent

SHERRARD – Underage drinking is at a societal epidemic stage “that all too often has not been fully grasped,” says Mark Churchill, a Moline attorney speaking at a recent Sherrard junior/senior high school forum.

The parking lot at the school was nearly packed. It was a meet the team night for winter sports – a Wednesday night, Nov. 9, 2016. Sounds from the gymnasium were at a dull roar. Meanwhile, down the hall in the library, a group of around 20 people gathered to learn about a recent survey done in the community about underage drinking.

More than 700 Sherrard School District residents participated in surveys on drug and alcohol perceptions and usage – 493 students in grades 7 – 12 answered 10 survey questions during first semester and 214 parents addressed a separate survey during the recent parent-teacher conferences.

The main take away from the session – parents and students differ in what they see, say and do.

“Results were overwhelmingly positive in that almost 80 percent of 7-12 grade students reported having never used alcohol and 96 percent of parents have communicated with their child(ren) about alcohol,” said Stacy Blackwell, grade 7-9 counselor.

Sherrard school social worker Donna Lamb started the session with this: “It only takes one person to make a change in someone’s live.” She explained how school administrators got together in the summer and approached school counselors with concerns about alcohol and drug use among students.

They worked to design two surveys – one for students and one for parents – to help the schools address concerns over drinking (or drugs).

Surveys were 10 questions each, some with yes/no answers, some multiple choice. Students answered questions on the number of times they’ve drunk an alcoholic beverage, number of times they’ve had more than five drinks at any one occasion, whether they know of parents or adults who allow non-family members to drink in their homes and whether or not their parents allow them to drink in their homes.

Some of the multiple choice questions were about results of drinking, such as school performance, being in a vehicle with an impaired driver or being arrested. Reasons why young people drink were also sought, with such reasons as: “it’s fun, out of boredom, because they are sad or depressed, because their friends do it or because it is accepted by their family or they think they will be accepted by peers.”

Nearly 86 percent of students surveyed said they drink because “it’s fun.” Conversely 60 percent said they feel it is a serious problem.

Another telling answer was to the multiple choice question of “Have you ever … ?”, with nearly 67 percent of the students answering they had “been a passenger in a vehicle in which the driver was under the influence of alcohol.” For this question, of the nine scenarios listed, only 106 students checked any of the answers.

Billy McAtee, co-president with Faith Anderson of the Tiger Leaders/SADD organization, had some insight into why some students did not answer some of the questions. He said a number of students felt intimidated by the questionnaire, thinking it might be monitored, since it was being scored by a computer.

One area the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) Tiger Leaders have become involved in is creating a Contract for Life, which is signed by a student and parent or guardian. The contract opens up communication towards the issue of drinking (drugging) and driving. Students promise to call and ask for advice or a ride if put in a situation with an impaired driver. Parents promise to help their child through a situation in a non-judgmental way by making suggestions or providing a ride if contacted “no matter what the hour or circumstance.”

Attorney Mark Churchill, who practices out of Moline, addressed the subject of civil law and alcohol usage by minors. He said that up to five years ago many things that parents should be worrying about today were not problems. In 2004 the legislature passed a law called “the drug or alcohol impaired minor liability act.”

He said the act in essence puts the blame on parents if underage drinking occurs. While the act addresses civil penalties, the cost can be very large. Parents or guardians have a serious liability potential to pay for medical treatment, future medical treatment, loss of life, pain and suffering. This is in addition to unwanted publicity, time away from home or work. “The potential catastrophic effect is horrific,” he said.

He pointed out the one fact pattern is this: “my kids and their friends are going to do it anyway.”

“God forbid one of those kids leaves your house and kills somebody,” he said.

He said a person’s homeowner insurance policy does not protect against actions caused by underage drinking.

Some questions he often gets are about renting a hotel/motel room for kids, or what happens if you are out of town and the kids have a party? He said there is always the possibility of being sued if something goes wrong.

“Even if your intentions are great – say, to provide a safe place – your potential is six digits in attorney fees (if a case would go to trial),” said Mr. Churchill.

Parents were surveyed about their views on underage alcohol use: 98 percent say it is not okay to allow underage alcohol use at home, 39 percent think that many parents provide alcohol for their children or ignore underage drinking and 93 percent think parents should call to check on adult supervision at an event before allowing their child’s attending it. Only five percent were concerned about their own child’s underage drinking.

Meeghan Lee, Mercer County state’s attorney, talked about potential criminal effects of underage drinking. Over the past 10 years she’s observed a sharp increase in alcohol and drug use among teens. Crimes like driving under the influence), vehicular homicide or involuntary manslaughter are potential problems. She talked about a recent Sherrard area party that was busted by police with a reported 100 people in attendance and 50 or more caught that resulted in a robbery at the residence.

“If you allow your child to drink at home, that’s legal,” she said. “But if you allow others to drink, that’s a class A misdemeanor the first time,” she added. If it happens multiple times, it’s a felony.

She said she takes each situation individually for prosecution – including deferred prosecution and levying a $250 fine. “There’s zero tolerance in Illinois at a party and a zero tolerance ticket can be given.” The result of a zero tolerance ticket is loss of driver’s license for from 1 – 3 months. A second offense is a class A misdemeanor and could prevent you from going to college or graduate school, she said.

“I have parents breathing down my neck to not charge their child,” she said. She countered that request with this statement: “You’re all getting treated the same.”

Students who have lost their license may still continue to drive, but if they are caught by law enforcement, it’s a class A misdemeanor.

She also mentioned that it is a felony to use a fake I.D.

Her advice to students and parents is to cooperate with law enforcement. If a person lies to the police it becomes a class 4 felony – obstruction of justice. “I sent someone to prison today for seven years for driving while suspended,” she said.

One person in attendance asked about college drinking, like in a dorm room. Ms. Lee said the parents could get a civil suit filed against them.

She said there seems to be a disconnect between parents and their children. “A lot of parents are interested in being best friends with their kids,” she said. “You’re risking everything by taking that approach.”

Ms. Lee told the school counselors she would be willing to come back to the school and talk to each class individually to try and get some of this information out to the students. “Most kids learn from their first mistake,” she said.