Parents, teenagers hear life's lessons on underage drinking
Islanders share painful stories to raise awarenessBy Donna K. Drago
The March 28 forum on teen drinking was one of 1,200 held that night around the United States to illuminate the problems caused when young people consume alcohol.
Most gripping was the story of Pam Allen, a longtime health and physical education teacher in the Jamestown schools, who described the horror of losing a son to a drunk driving accident and how that incident led to the eventual break-up of her marriage.
Allen told the audience, which included about 25 teens, "None of you want to be standing where I am," before delving into her painful story.
She described the day that her son Matthew Allen, recently out from being incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions, consumed a large quantity of vodka, and then went to his job at Stop and Shop. He was in such an intoxicated state, a co-worker drove him home, Allen said. She said he was prohibited by law to drive a car, his car had no license plates, and still, despite his condition, he got into his car on that December afternoon and drove.
Matt Allen hit a patch of black ice on Old Baptist Road in North Kingstown, Allen said, and wrapped his car around an oak tree.
Allen said she felt blessed that he died instantly - blessed that she did not "have to attend funerals of other children he might have killed," and blessed that she did not have to make a "moral choice, whether to pull the plug or not."
Allen said, "Don't think this only happens to the other guy," and added, "It happens to everyone."
Allen addressed the grade 8 attendees there to get extra credit in their civics class. "Alcohol is a risky, dangerous drug," she said. "You should not consume or buy it if you're under 21," she added.
Panelist and liquor store owner Frank LaPere said that one of his employees being caught selling alcohol to an underage person was a real "wake up call," one that changed the policies and procedures employed in the sale of alcohol at Grapes and Gourmet, a wine and gourmet foods shop.
LaPere admitted that before the "sting" he had "not taken underage drinking too seriously." Because he had an upscale business that featured mostly high-end wines, he thought young people "didn't really have a taste for that."
On Nov. 11, 2005, LaPere said, an employee of Grapes sold a sixpack of beer to a girl who was "20 years and 364 days old," just one day shy of the required age to purchase alcohol. The employee, he said, did not ask for an identification card.
"We should have," LaPere said.
He described how in the days immediately after the incident, he had his entire staff trained in the TIPS alcohol awareness program. The program "gave my staff some wonderful skills," like how to spot a fake ID, and to know that when someone says "I left my ID in the car," it usually means that the person is under age.
"This is stuff we didn't know before," LaPere said.
The new store policy, LaPere said, is to card everyone who appears to be under 30 and only accept identification cards from four sources: a state-issued driver's license, passport, military ID, or Rhode Island ID card.
"I'm 43," LaPere said, admitting, "It's hard for me to remember what a 21-year-old looks like."
The experience of being caught was "publicly embarrassing for my business," LaPere said.
A parent in the audience said to LaPere, "Thank you for protecting our children and for being so honest."
Representing the Jamestown Police Department, Sgt. Jack Dube commended LaPere for the steps he has taken to reduce the problem of underage drinking on the island. He told the audience that on the same night, the young woman who bought alcohol at Grapes and Gourmet also made a purchase at the town's other liquor store and even though she was carded at one of the island's bars, "they served her anyway."
Dube provided handouts and gave lots of information about the current laws as they pertain to underage drinkers.
He said the new penalties for being charged with possession of alcohol were a "$750 fine, a minimum 60 days of license suspension, and community service."
"You got any problems with that?" he asked the audience.
Anyone over 21 who purchases alcohol for someone under 21 will be charged with a felony, Dube said, noting that the fine was $1,000 and up to six months in prison. He noted that for people caught with an open container of alcohol in their car, the license suspension is three months longer than the license suspension for a drunk driving charge.
Dube was asked many questions from both parents and teens in the audience.
A parent wanted to know how the police would react to empty bottles in the car, such as if they were being brought to a recycling facility.
Dube said, "Let's be reasonable" in that case they would not bring charges.
Another parent wanted to know why she never sees the names of adults charged with buying alcohol for minors in the paper. Dube said it was because "most kids will not rat out the adult who bought for them." He said he had only arrested two adults in the 26 years he had been on the force for that crime. Another reason there are no charges brought, Dube said, is that many kids get the alcohol from "their parents house."
Teens asked for specifics on the open container laws, and one wanted to know why an 18-yearold can serve alcohol in a restaurant, but cannot drink it. "It seems weird," the teen said.
Dube explained that it was because in the workplace an 18year-old is considered an adult.
One teen sat on the panel. The panel facilitator Glenn Miller asked Nate Wigton, 16, to describe how he feels about alcohol.
Wigton told the audience that while he had been offered alcohol at a party, "I don't drink." He said he was a runner and a member of the North Kingstown High School track team and running and alcohol did not mix well. "I stay away from it," Wigton said.
He did not find the smell of alcohol appealing. "I'd rather have a soda," Wigton said. "The laws are there for a reason," Wigton said, adding, "I don't want alcohol to take control of me. I want to make sure what I'm doing is what I intend to be doing" at all times.
He had seen many teens thrown off sports teams for drinking, and he guessed that about half of the teens he knew had drunk alcohol at one point or another, Wigton said.
Miller asked Wigton if his friends drank alcohol.
"No," Wigton said, "that's why they are my friends."
Other panelists included Stephanie Wordell, the student assistance counselor at the Lawn Avenue School, and Melissa Minto, the director of the island's Teen Center.