COHASSET — For the past decade, Richard P. Campbell has been warning parents that if they allow underage kids to drink, they’re courting disaster. They can go to jail, face fines, and be sued for millions of dollars.
Sometimes, he admits, he feels like nobody’s listening.
Campbell, a lawyer, points to the recent case in Marshfield, where police charged a couple under the state’s Social Host Law with allowing underage drinking in their home. Police found out about the party when a teen was so drunk he was hospitalized; they reported finding 145 empty beer cans and an empty bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila at the house.
“It’s emblematic of the problem,” Campbell said. “I guess the sad part is that despite talking about it for years, the behavior goes on and on.
“We care about the parents,” he added. “We’d like them all to wake up and realize the risk to their freedom and [personal assets] they undertake when they do these things. We don’t think they’re evil. We think they’re foolish. To be the hip or cool parent is sort of an ephemeral benefit — especially if somebody gets hurt, or dies, or goes to jail.”
Neither the state nor district attorneys keep track of how many cases are prosecuted of adults for allowing underage drinking. But examples crop up periodically.
There’s the Haverhill mother imprisoned for six months for allowing drinking at a party where a 16-year-old died in 2003. That same year, police charged a Scituate teenager for holding a party at his parents’ home; two teenage girls died later in an alcohol-fueled car crash.
In January 2013, a Scituate lawyer escaped prosecution after police were called to her home with reports of an underage drinking party and an unconscious youth. She faced police charges, but a Hingham District Court clerk-magistrate decided in a closed hearing not to proceed with the case.
Campbell has been involved with the legal ramifications of underage drinking since the 1980s, when he represented a retired Roman Catholic nun, Ruth Langemann, who was injured by a teenage drunk driver leaving a house party. That case helped lead to the adoption of the Social Host Law in Massachusetts, he said.
It was the aftermath of a fatal accident in 1996, however, that sharpened the definition of a “social host” and increased the penalties for anyone who allowed teens to drink.
Cohasset resident John Lennon hosted a double graduation party, for his son graduating from Thayer Academy and his college graduate daughter, and served alcohol. Eighteen-year-old Gregory Smith drank at the party; while driving home to Marshfield, he crashed his car into a telephone pole and died.
Lennon was charged under the Social Host Law but was acquitted, since at that time the law required hosts to physically provide the alcohol. That prompted Smith’s parents to lobby to expand the definition of a host to include anyone “allowing” a person under 21 to drink alcohol. The change took effect in 2000.
“It was a great change in the law from my perspective,” said Campbell, who lives in Cohasset. “When kids get together to consume alcohol, it’s most common to carry in their own alcohol . . . and consume it in a place out of the view of the police. If you’re trying to prevent that behavior, you focus on the premises.
“A lot of adults roll their eyes and say, ‘How can I control kids coming to my house?’ Simple. It’s your house. Don’t let them in, or call their parent, or call the police.
‘We don’t think they’re evil. We think they’re foolish. To be the hip or cool parent is sort of an ephemeral benefit — especially if somebody gets hurt, or dies, or goes to jail.’
“The worst offenders are people in the wealthy towns,” he said. “They don’t think anything bad will happen to them. They know it all. They have the wealth to have the parties, they have the wealth to hire the lawyers.”
He noted that only two people showed up on a recent Thursday evening at Cohasset Middle High School to hear his law firm’s presentation on the Social Host Law. The firm gives the presentations as a free service, especially toward prom and graduation time. Parents had been notified of the meeting by the school principal, but were not required to attend.
Only a few dozen turned out for a recent meeting at Walpole High School, as well — despite the incentive of raffling off two sets of free prom tickets, worth $120 each.
The way to draw a crowd is to make the meetings mandatory, and the practice is spreading, Campbell said. Schools will make attendance a prerequisite for students going to the prom or playing sports, he said.
“Plymouth does that, and there are 1,500 people in the hall,” he said.
Silver Lake Regional High School decided to tie the program to the prom this year, after few parents attended similar meetings in the two previous years, according to principal Richard Kelley.
“Attending the prom is not a right; it’s a privilege,” Kelley said. “In order to earn that privilege [for students], their parents have to come to a social host presentation. Bottom line, all the kids attending the prom, their parents have gone through the presentation.”
Notre Dame Academy in Hingham also made attendance mandatory at a meeting on the Social Host Law this year for all juniors and seniors and at least one parent of each student, according to principal Kathleen Colin.
“We care very much about the health and wellness and safety of our students and their families,” Colin said. “They weren’t bounding in the door, but there was no resistance. I think people understand the seriousness of the issue, and every parent wants to keep their child safe.”
Hingham High School presented the social host information at its spring sports parents night, which drew about 500 people, according to principal Paula Girouard McCann. She said she hoped the information would stick, especially in light of the most recent survey of Hingham High School students that showed 25 percent reported attending a party where alcohol was available and parents were present.
A similar survey of Marshfield High School students found that 29 percent of ninth-graders and 58 percent of 11th-graders said they had been to a party where parents were present and knew that youths were drinking.
“I think it’s appalling that parents would knowingly allow teenagers to drink in their house because they think its safer there than anywhere else,” Girouard McCann said. “Kids make bad decisions when they’re impaired. Any parent who knowingly would allow kids to be in that position is totally irresponsible.”
Parents and children also are risking their freedom and assets, Campbell said. He pointed to the 2003 case in Newburyport in which 16-year-old Trista Zinck was killed and her boyfriend, Neil Bornstein, was permanently injured by a drunk driver coming from a house party.
Nineteen-year-old Brendan Kneram said he tried to stop his friend from driving away from the party at his home, but he was convicted under the Social Host Law and sentenced to a year in jail. Total damages awarded to the Zinck and Bornstein families were $8.7 million.
“You don’t want to be these people,” Campbell said.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.