Underage drinking a stubborn local concern

GLOVERSVILLE – Underage drinking remains a concern in Fulton County, authorities say.

Some in law enforcement say the levels of alcohol consumption by people younger than 21 – whether at house parties, hidden spots or open fields – have stayed the same generation after generation. Some say consumption is on the rise, while some who counsel youths say it’s on the decline.

“I think it’s remained steady,” said Gloversville police Chief Donald VanDeusen. “There’s a percentage of people who are going to do it.”

VanDeusen, with 23 years of experience policing Gloversville, said there’s not as much underage drinking “as you would think there would be.”

He also said some parents “aren’t complaining” about their children who are under 21 and drinking, as long as they know where they are and feel they are in a safe and controlled environment.

“I still think there’s an air of secrecy,” VanDeusen said.

The cities of Gloversville and Johnstown adopted social-host laws several years ago aimed at prosecuting adults ages 21 and older who allow underage drinking on their property. A few arrests have been reported.

“We don’t normally deal with it,” VanDeusen said of the law. “We don’t have party patrols out there.”

But he said Gloversville police are aware underage drinking occurs in parks, schools and athletic field parking lots and wooded areas, among other places.

VanDeusen said city police rely on the public to report possible criminal activity, including underage drinking.

The Johnstown-based Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Partners’ Promise coalition – started in October 1998 – tries to reduce alcohol use by youths.

ASAPP’S Promise Agency Co-Coordinator Jaime Rulison says her organization surveys youths every two to three years in Fulton County in grades seven through 12.

In the last survey from October 2011, 20 percent of Fulton County’s students in grades seven to 12 said they drank alcohol in the past 30 days.

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the flip side of the survey finding. The group says 79.8 percent of youths have not had alcohol in the last 30 days in Fulton County.

“Everybody doesn’t drink,” Rulison said. “There are kids making some very good decisions.”

Rulison said students taking the survey tend to take it seriously.

She said statistics over the past 10 years show fewer minors are drinking alcohol, but she says “binge drinking” – having four to five drinks or more at one time – is “still a problem.”

The 2011 survey found the number of Fulton County’s junior high school and high school students who use alcohol had fallen below the national average for the first time. Similar surveys were given to county students in 2003, 2006 and 2008. The surveys noted the alcohol-use level was between 22 percent and 24 percent in each of the surveys.

Among Fulton County’s high school seniors, the use of alcohol stood around 40 percent, slightly below the national average of 41 percent, the 2011 survey found.

Fulton County has had some high-profile police arrests involving underage drinking over the years, including several in 2012.

Johnstown police investigated an underage drinking party Dec. 7 and made an arrest at a Glebe Street residence officers said had a “history” of underage parties. Police said 16 people, ranging in age from 14 to 22, were at the party, which was hosted by a 15-year-old boy. A social-host law arrest was also made in connection with a November 2012 party in Johnstown in which a teenage girl fell from a second-story window and fractured her skull.

Johnstown police Chief Mark Gifford – an officer in the city since 1988 – said drinking isn’t the only problem affecting young people.

Gifford said drug-abuse incidents in the city have increased “dramatically” the last five or six years.

He said Johnstown police take “two approaches” to combatting alcohol consumption by minors. He said the department has “underage drinking details” of one or two officers that look for such activity in certain spots. The other approach is to gain usable information on residences where there might be underage drinking parties.

Gifford said the details might involve going to certain areas of the city at certain times of the year, such as Christmas. Officers also may target specific sites in which youths congregate, such as the Rail Trail, he said.

The chief said there are several reasons for possible increases in underage drinking, including the economic downturn in recent years. Gifford said the problem may be linked to the breakdown of some families.

The Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in August announced 75 people ages 16 to 23 were charged by deputies – mostly with trespassing – from a large party July 19, 2012, at a vacant residence in Perth. Suspects were mainly from Gloversville, Johnstown, Amsterdam, Fort Johnson, Broadalbin, Fonda and Fultonville.

In May 2012, Gloversville police arrested 21 teens and young adults on alcohol charges and charged the Lincoln Street man accused of providing them with the booze under that city’s social-host law.

Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira, a county prosecutor since 1994, said the number of underage drinking cases has remained steady.

Police agencies such as the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department continue to receive grant funding to deal with the issue.

Undersheriff Kevin Lenahan recently informed county supervisors that $20,000 is available for his department from the HFM Prevention Council and the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services for 2013.

Sheriff’s funding is used for overtime for full-time deputies and per-diem hours for part-time deputies. The office also uses deputies for extra party patrols and to conduct investigations of underage purchases. The department also tries to fight underage consumption at public events. The effort is aimed at enforcement of state Alcoholic Beverage Control laws.

Sira said law-enforcement resources, including grants, have decreased over the years.

She said there’s still “misconceptions” about what’s allowable by adults when people younger than 21 are in a social setting and alcohol is introduced.

Drinking parties involving young people can lead to tragedies.

“It’s always a concern because of the effects alcohol can have,” the district attorney said.

Michael Anich can be reached at [email protected].

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