Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Punishing decent parenting in the name of prohibition.

I consider it a tragedy when any young person dies. And the death of 16-year-old Joseph Loudon, in Orinda, CA, is no exception. The facts are that Loudon attended a house party with other teens. There was drinking, as there often is at such things. He allegedly drank too much and collapsed unconscious. He died in hospital.

We do not yet know that alcohol played a part in his death. It may well have. But until autopsy results are released it is all conjecture. But, for the sake of this argument, let us assume that Loudon was drinking.

Police, of course, want to arrest someone for supplying alcohol. So the 18-year-old who threw the party was arrested. The local news report called Loudon a “victim” implying someone else was the victimizer. If alcohol had a role to play then Loudon died at his own hand. Apparently in cases like this everyone wants someone other than the person who chose to drink to be responsible.

If there were a roof party, say three floors up. And someone provided tablecloths that some moron used to form a parachute, and that someone then jumped off the roof, dying as a result, would we arrest the provider of tablecloths? Would we consider making tablecloths a crime because someone used them in an irresponsible way? Loudon chose to drink, and he chose to drink irresponsibly. He did not think he was choosing to die but he chose to drink in a manner that likely caused his death.

Some might ask where the parents of the party host were. That is a valid question. Perhaps they didn’t know a party was happening. Perhaps they did. And if they did then they had no choose but to disappear irresponsibly. The law punishes responsible parents who monitor drinking for teens. Our neo-prohibitionist view of alcohol basically says that no one under the age of 21 is legally allowed to drink, with or without parental supervision. This makes the United States relatively unique.

As I have mentioned before I attended a Beer Festival (even though I don’t drink) at a high school overseas. All the students were drinking and were drinking with their parents and teachers. The very idea of making that a crime was ludicrous to these people. But America, with its moralistic Puritanism, bans such activity. Of course, like all prohibitionist policies it doesn’t work. It doesn’t prevent drinking it just turns teens into criminals for doing so.

Worse, it turns adults who supervise such activity into criminals as well.

Consider something that happened a few days ago in Cornwall, Connecticut. Ralph Dzenutis. As the father of a high school student he wanted a small party for friends of his son after the prom. He didn’t realize that word would spread and some 200 students showed up. He tried to keep control. Some students showed up drunk. Dzenutis did his best to make sure anyone driving wasn’t drunk. But three students passed out and Dzenutis was arrested because he was an adult on the premises.

Dzenutis is considered a model parent. He is a volunteer in the local fire department. He is a Little League coach. Dzenutis said: “I am a parent who was trying to do the right thing. I don’t condone the drinking at these parties, and I didn’t buy alcohol for these kids. But I knew the kids would be drinking, so I wanted them in a safe, supervised place. ‘Just Say No’ isn’t a position, a responsible place to be. It’s just negativity and ignorance. The kids were entitled to a party in a protected place.”

Of course the local police turned this into a major police exercise. At first they seemed reasonable. They allowed Dzenutis to walk around his property telling everyone to leave. Those who had too much to drink were given phones to call their parents to come pick them up. A few who had drunk too much Dzenutis would lead up to the police who offered to help them. (When police go to help, duck and cover.)

Next thing you know bands of cops with barking, snarling sniffer dogs appear on the scene. Terrified teens ran into the woods afraid of the police—which is a wise first reaction these days. One report says that the parents of these kids “complain that the barking dogs and the beeping thermal-imaging equipment frightened many of the teenagers, causing them to run deeper into the woods, crashing into trees and knocking their knees against stone walls.”

Dzenutis says that the police “came on like storm troopers, and the dogs are really vicious until their handlers quiet them down.” He said, “a lot of kids were scared, and we were worried some would get hurt. The police rounded the kids up with their dogs.” Even teens that were not drinking were forbidden by the police to drive home. They were forced to call their parents for a ride.

The local school, a creature of the state, threatened students who attended the party with suspension from all sporting activities. One parent told the local paper something sensible—far too sensible for politicians to listen to:

"I've known Ralph Dzenutis for 13 years, and I know exactly why he held that party. He knew what he was like at the age, what I was like at that age, he knew the kids would drink, so he held the party at his house to protect them. "When I was that age and a party got out of hand, the police came and they were your friends. 'OK, kids, the party's over. Go home.' They cleared the place and everybody was happy. The cops were our friends. But now we've got state police trolling the hallways at the high school, searching for whatever. Showing up at parties with police dogs. We've completely lost the sense of allowing kids to learn by making their own mistakes. And we've made the kids afraid of the cops. Kids don't consider the police their friends anymore."

Cornwall Selectman K.C. Baird defended Dzenutis as well and said the police overreacted. “I’ve always told my kids that I know you’re going to drink, just don’t mix it with driving. Just call me any time of night, and I’ll come get you. That’s all that Ralph was trying to do at his party, and bringing the law down on him, or on the kids, isn’t going to curtail drinking.”

No, it won’t curtail drinking. What it will do is punish parents who do try to supervise and protect teens who are drinking. It pushes them away. If they can’t stop the drinking entirely their only option is to get in the car and leave the teens unsupervised, with no adult there to restrain what is happening, with no adult their to teach responsibility. And when no adults are there things get worse, as the situation with Joseph Loudon demonstrates.

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