Curbing underage drinking a collaborative effort countywide

Around the holidays, Glenn Chelius and his wife may pour a small glass of wine for their three children as a way for them to join in the festivities.

Introducing the 16-year-old girl and 14- and 12-year-old boys to something that could become an influence on their lives later on is a teaching tool the Crystal Lake couple hope will pay off. 

“I’d rather control it in my house than have it be a real mystery to my children and then they go off and abuse it somewhere else,” Chelius said. “It’s tricky, but we have to be clear with what we are trying to do as parents because underage drinking is a reality.”

Chelius educates his children about the potential dangers and legalities involved with underage drinking, often setting aside time with each child individually or planning activities outside the home as an informal setting to discuss real-life situations.  

“It’s scary and frightening,” Chelius said. “It’s about keeping the lines of communication open, because its easier to build trust if we all know what is going on.”

Despite a significant drop in citations issued in McHenry County for underage possession and consumption of alcohol, underage drinking still exists, area law enforcement officials agree. The problem is being tackled countywide through collaborative education and enforcement efforts. 

Five McHenry County communities have seen a 32 percent decrease in citations issued for either underage consumption or possession of alcohol between 2008 and 2012, data shows. Crystal Lake, Woodstock, McHenry, Huntley and Algonquin combined to issue 272 citations last year, down from 400 in 2008.

Numbers have decreased four out of the past five years except for 2010, when citations increased to 338 from 312 in 2009. Police officers issued a total of 300 tickets in 2011.

McHenry had the most citations issued over the 2008-12 time period with 541. The city hovered over the 100-citation mark annually from 2008 to 2011 until last year, when numbers dipped to 79 compared with 117 in 2011.

Crystal Lake wasn’t far behind, issuing 522 tickets over the past five years. Citations peaked in 2008 when 140 were handed out, and the city saw its biggest spike in 2012, when officers handed out 108 compared with 67 the previous year.

“Children will abuse anything they can get ahold of,” Crystal Lake police Cmdr. Dan Dziewior said. “We tend to see the kid who shows up drunk at the dance or football game, or a group of minors parked somewhere drinking alcohol.”

Coming in well below the rest was Huntley, which saw 73 minors issued possession or consumption citations in the past five years. The city has had no more than 20 tickets issued in a single year during that same time period.

From 2010 to 2013, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has issued 291 citations, numbers show. Citations peaked last year with 91, and the department has issued 49 through July of this year.

For communities such as Woodstock and Crystal Lake, officers have at their disposal the opportunity to send offenders to administrative court instead of circuit court at the county level.

Administrative court handles matters such as nuisance and community code violations as well as smoking and parking tickets, to name a few. It does not handle felonies or crimes that involve possible jail time.

For cases such as underage drinking, being found guilty of a city ordinance violation in administrative court means that the conviction does not go onto a person’s record.

Woodstock launched its administrative court in December 2009, and has gone on to issue 97 adjudication citations through July 2013.

“It takes a community to raise children nowadays,” Woodstock police Sgt. Chip Amati said. “Adjudication citations gives kids a second chance and allows us to help the child and straighten them out.”

Dziewior agreed.

“People make mistakes,” Dziewior said. “It’s sometimes an easier process for our officers to issue adjudication citations because it doesn’t require the physical arrest of an individual.”

Area leaders and law enforcement agencies across the county teamed up to create the Underage Drinking Task Force in September 2010 to address a growing concern of alcohol use by teenagers.

A key strategy developed by the task force was the creation of sample ordinances that municipalities could adopt, covering the topics of keg tagging, alcohol sign limitations in storefronts, holding those who host drinking parties more accountable, and synthetic drug use.

“It’s a unified effort that shows the county is taking underage drinking seriously,” sheriff’s Deputy Aimee Knop said. “The focus is now on education and enforcement, not just enforcement.”

Adults who contribute to the delinquency of minors also could face fines and possible jail time depending on whether a case goes through the adjudication process or circuit court.

It falls on the parents to educate their children about the dangers of underage drinking.

“It’s always a struggle to walk the line between parent and friend,” Chelius said. “A lot of times we screw up as parents, but it’s about making good choices. We aren’t given a handbook and are shooting from the hip sometimes.”

Besides legal trouble, those minors caught with alcohol also could face discipline from their local schools.

At District 155, students can be suspended 10 days for a first offense and can be expelled after multiple offenses, according to the student handbook. Athletes and students involved in extracurricular activities also can lose eligibility.

Sophomores at the Crystal Lake-based district’s four high schools are required to take health class, which includes a unit dedicated to the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol. Schools also ramp up educational efforts around times when alcohol may be more prevalent, such as prom and homecoming.

“We try to give students a firsthand look at what could happen,” District 155 spokesman Jeff Puma said. “Your peer group and teammates play a role in education and keeping kids in line.”

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