Here’s all we need to know about teens and alcohol in Lake Highlands, according to neighborhood students who face decisions concerning alcohol daily:

  • In Lake Highlands, alcohol is easy to come by for teens who want it;
  • Drinking is becoming more common among neighborhood junior high students;
  • Parties featuring alcohol and teens sometimes come with a parental stamp of approval;
  • Pressure to drink is present, but in a much more subtle fashion than the heavy-handed approach (“Are you chicken?”) once popular on after-school television specials.

A final remark is perhaps most telling: “If my parents caught me drinking, I don’t know what they would do.”

Law and Order

A City-wide sweep with about 100 police officers checking out known teen drinking hangouts was conducted late last year. Police Chief John Martinez of the Northeast Division, which serves our neighborhood, is planning similar sweeps in Lake Highlands as the weather warms and as school lets out for the summer.

Martinez describes underage drinking as “pretty prevalent” in Lake Highlands.

“Any summer night, you can go out to the park and see kids hanging out and drinking,” he says. A willingness by some to “look the other way if a kid has a beer in his hand” is among the factors that have made “drinking more of a problem than drugs, at least in this area.”

New state laws created to reduce drinking by minors give police officers greater leeway and contain harsh consequences for those they arrest.

Councilman Alan Walne is among the neighborhood leaders pushing for these laws to be more than just tough talk.

“The policy perspective as far as my district is not, ‘Let’s pour it out and go home,’” he says. Law enforcement, he says, has “seen a lack of support from a parental perspective” in fighting youth drinking. He wants to provide that support.

“That’s what I’m trying to address, with what the City Council wants to see in this area,” he says.

“If there’s heat, I’ll take the heat.”

The Law

Senate Bill 35 (which the Dallas Police Department began enforcing in late November) makes it a Class C misdemeanor for anyone under 21 to be under the influence of any detectable amount of alcohol.

Crucial to the bill’s language is “detectable amount.” Officers no longer have to apply a breath test to cite minors for drunken driving, or to catch a youngster holding and drinking an alcoholic beverage to pursue “minor in possession” or “consumption of alcohol by a minor” charges.

Instead, enforcement can be based on the officers’ observations.

Also new are provisions to suspend the licenses of minors caught under the “detectable amount” standard for driving and other violations. For driving-related violations, the license can be suspended 60 days for the first offense; 120 days for the second; and 180 days for the third and subsequent offense.

For other violations, the driver’s license is automatically suspended 30 days for the first offense; 60 days for the second offense; and 180 days for third and subsequent offenses. This suspension is in addition to criminal sanctions for all offenses, which can mandate fines, classes and even jail time.

Adults who provide alcohol to minors also face harsher consequences. The penalty for doing so has been raised from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor – a jump that allows for not only steeper fines, but jail time.

Clearly, the letter of the law leaves little room for a “kids will be kids attitude.” But how will this get-tough approach translate to real life?

A Public Forum

Backed by co-sponsors and speakers such as the Lake Highlands High School PTA, Police Chief Ben Click and Judge Marshall Gandy, Walne held a town hall meeting at the high school in November. The auditorium was packed with parents and teens (some of whom received extra credit for attending).

Walne has been supportive of Senate Bill 35 since its inception. His son attends Lake Highlands High School, and his daughter graduated from the school, giving him a chance to “see what kids go through in the high school experience.” What he sees too often is excess drinking – “at the warehouses, parties and homes” – that could lead youngsters down a dangerous path.

“The earlier you are a drinker, the better chance of there being a drinking problem,” he says.

“So much youth drinking, underage drinking, is drinking to get drunk. It’s not just ‘I had a beer,’ it’s ‘I had a case.’”

“That sets up problems later on.”

Like Martinez, Walne suggests the tougher regulations are as much for protection as punishment.

“This is an important issue that affects the rest of their lives,” he says. “I’m not interested in getting kids in trouble. I want them to make good decisions.”

Experimentation with alcohol doesn’t make a youngster “a bad kid,” Walne says. But guidance is needed.

“Some parents are very lenient about monitoring what’s going on…we need parents to be parents.”

Parents’ Perspectives

Carol Kent, president of the Richardson Council of PTAs, was one of several Lake Highlands parents expressing support for the new restrictions. Some have heard the stories about parents who permit drinking in their homes for graduation or after-dance parties; none of them have encountered such a situation first-hand.

“’Vigilant’ is the word,” Kent says. “We are making sure our children are safe, and the law is being followed.”

“The message of vigilance is well-founded,” she says. “This could be the beginning of a lifestyle that will be a killer for many of them.”

At school functions, for example, strict rules, including checking bags and escorting students to their cars, are enforced to keep events alcohol-free. (Kent recalls fondly a student who expressed gratitude for the mindful measures: “What a mature response for a 17-year-old.”)

For functions outside school, the Lake Highlands’ junior high and high school PTAs have collaborated on a pledge between students and parents that calls for careful monitoring of social gatherings outside of school.

Other parents also praised the anti-drinking message sent by the schools, and said that message is supported by neighborhood families.

“What I really want to stress is how concerned are the parents of the community. It is not taken lightly,” says Donna Chereck, who has one son attending LHHS and two who have graduated from the school.

“Our elementary, junior high and high schools do a good job of reaching the kids. Our hope is that the new laws will give us the support we need.”

Drinking has become an issue for even younger kids, Chereck says, with the situation becoming especially difficult in high school: “There is incredible peer pressure at the high school level. Unfortunately, that’s really important to them at this age.

“I’m not going to say my kids haven’t ever participated…as parents we don’t condone it, and we certainly will not provide alcohol to our underage children and certainly won’t give it to others.”

Brenda Prine, mother of a LHHS senior and sophomore and Forest Meadow 7th grader, says some neighborhood families have teamed up to regularly offer supervised parties on the weekends. The gatherings are well-attended and popular, she says.

“See, a lot of the problem is the kids have no place to go. It’s really a problem that starts in junior high,” she says. “They want to socialize and be together.”

“This is a positive way to give them something to do instead of riding around and getting nuts, and God knows what else.”

Senior Views

In speaking with a group of LHHS seniors, two things became obvious:

  • None of the students were willing to be identified for this story.
  • All of them had plenty to say about the topic of teen drinking.

Says one girl: “I don’t think it’s right when parents, like, hold the party. There was this one where the parents were there…it was strange.”

The students’ attitude toward the new laws seems mostly positive, although there is some skepticism: “If someone really wants to drink, it won’t stop them,” says one student.

The seniors sharing their experiences say they are non-drinkers; when asked why they have made that choice, there is a brief pause.

“It’s gross. It’s not appealing to me,” says one student, a football player.

Says another: “I look at drinking as a weakness people have. They feel empty, or can’t handle the peer pressure. They have a weakness in life they need to fill.”

The final remark: “For me, it’s just like I wasn’t brought up that way.”

Providing an Education

LHHS principal Bob Iden says “we do as many things as we practically can to let students know to avoid alcohol.”

Those activities include sponsorship of an active Students Against Drunk Driving chapter, bringing in speakers from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and displaying the wrecked car from a drinking-related crash as part of a Don’t Drink and Drive project before Homecoming.

Iden says the new laws “have certainly heightened the awareness of teen-agers. It got their attention.” He describes the response from parents as “very positive.”

“I think parents really appreciate anything we can do to answer to the health and well-being of their children,” he says. “I don’t think there is widespread acceptance of teen-age alcohol abuse.

“I just know we have got to do this together. Parents have to work with us to have the efforts pay off.”

Legislation isn’t the whole answer, Iden says.

“Unfortunately, I think it has always been a presence,” he says. “I don’t know if we can stop it altogether. Our major focus is to impress on kids not to get in cars.”

“It’s a complex problem that doesn’t have a simple solution,” he says. “The new law and its enforcement is certainly part of the solution.”

Preventing A Tragedy

Martinez says the new laws – “It’s a pretty severe penalty for a teen-ager to take away their license” – and the “detectable amount” standard make an effective combination.

“I expect we will use this law very frequently in the coming months, using it in conjunction with the curfew law,” he says. “We have more tools to deal with this problem.”

The department has received little feedback on the new regulations so far; Martinez hopes parents will support their efforts.

“We want to make it clear to teen-agers and parents that we’re doing them a favor,” he says. “We may be saving their life.”

“They would rather I call and say that their child has been cited instead of calling to say their child is at the hospital or in the morgue,” he says.

“We have to send a message. That’s what this legislation has done.”