As proms near, task force to target underage drinkers

GREENFIELD — Law enforcement officers know that big school events often mean more parties. So, with three county high school proms this weekend and another next week, Hancock County’s Underage Drinking Task Force is warning teens that extra officers will be on patrol and looking for underage drinkers.

Tim Retherford, executive director of Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse (NASA), said he hopes an extra warning of weekend patrols will have students opting for pizza and soda at these celebrations rather than drugs and alcohol.

“(Underage drinking after prom) isn’t a problem just in this community; it’s a problem in every community,” Retherford said. “Our goal is to prevent this problem and keep kids safer.”

The Underage Drinking Task Force was created by NASA in 2013 after a survey indicated county residents were concerned about underage drinking. In response, NASA, area school districts and law enforcement agencies came together to create a protocol for handling underage drinking cases.

Since 2013, the group has been responsible for roughly 150 arrests and a significant drop in drinking rates among the county’s teens, statistics show.

The task force traditionally does not release information about party patrols, Retherford said, but officers are hopeful the notice will encourage teens and parents to report rumored drinking parties before they take place.

Last year, several reports came in through an anonymous tip line operated by the task force, Hancock County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brad Burkhart said. These tips gave law enforcement officers the opportunity to visit rumored party locations and speak to parents there.

In instances such as these, one of two things usually happens, Burkhart said: The parents will know of the gathering and will assure the officer no illegal activity will take place; or they will thank the officer for the heads-up and bring a quick end to any party plans.

By being proactive and preventing parties, officers can prevent a range of other offenses that often occur while teens are under the influence, such as drunken driving and sexual assaults, Retherford said.

School officials say they are doing their part to keep kids safe on prom night, too.

Greenfield-Central High School officials administer breath tests at the prom to ensure no alcohol is consumed at the event, assistant principal Susanna Coleman said.

The procedure was put in place after suggestions from students several years ago. Since then, the school has not had any issues with minor consumption at the event, she said.

New Palestine High School administrators also give breath tests at prom, Principal Keith Fessler said. Consequences for when students are found with alcohol are dealt with on an individual basis, he said.

Since the task force started its party patrols in March, officers have been called to two events where minor consumption was taking place, Retherford said. Last year, officers had gone to five parties by mid-April and broke up at least two on each following weekend.

Retherford said the task force’s goal is not to arrest teens but to keep teens mindful of negative consequences that come with breaking the law.

“Just because a kid makes a bad decision does not make them a bad kid; good kids can make bad decisions, too,” Retherford said.

“We’re trying to get people to understand the effects of those bad decisions. (The task force) is working, and I believe a higher percentage of kids are making better choices.”

Tip off police

Know of a party where there will be underage drinking? Call the Underage Drinking Task Force’s anonymous tip line at 47-PARTY (317-477-2789).

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.