‘Party patrols,’ other efforts to stop underage drinking being stepped up

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LEWISTON — Last summer there was a party with underage drinking in the Turner-Greene area. The partiers were clever.

“Happy 40th” signs were displayed outside the home, trying to convince police they were of legal age, said Lewiston Police Department Cpl. Tim Darnell, the alcohol investigator for Androscoggin County.

It didn’t work.

Officers on the “party patrol” stayed and watched. The crowd looked young. The party got busted. Parents were called to retrieve their teens. “A lot of people got charged,” Darnell said.

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But no one died. The kids got home safely, Darnell said, unlike what happened at Christmas time, 2006, when four recent high school graduates coming from a party crashed into a couple, killing all six.  The driver of the second vehicle had not been drinking.

The kids “made poor decisions,” Darnell said. “They were good kids. They were going to be successful, productive members of society and we lost them. That’s our why.”

With prom season and graduations around the corner, community efforts to decrease underage drinking are being stepped up through the Safe Schools Healthy Students program, which is funded by a federal grant.

Program coordinator Rosemary Kooy said more money to do three things:

• Help police do more underage drinking prevention and enforcement.

• Add two substance-abuse counselors in Lewiston-Auburn Schools, one for each city.

• Hold a prescription drop-off day where people can safely discard old prescriptions, especially painkillers, to keep them out of the hands of minors.

The “Prescription Take Back” morning will be held from 9 to 11:30 a.m. May 8 at Lewiston High School.

“We’ll provide safe disposal of old and unused drugs,” Kooy said. Police will be there to provide safety. “Community members can come and drop off old prescriptions.” For environmental reasons, unused prescriptions should not be flushed down the toilet.

The two new substance-abuse counselors will begin working in Lewiston-Auburn middle and high schools April 26. They are Kim Vallee and Susan Garry, who will be contracted through Community Concepts.

“We want to increase access and early identification of substance abuse,” Kooy said. The counselors will work with students, and make referrals when necessary.

Early identification is key, particularly in the middle school. “That’s when the onset of alcohol and marijuana use begins,” Kooy said. The younger students are when they start using drugs and alcohol, the easier they can develop problems. “The addictive process is much quicker the younger they are,” Kooy said.

The police departments will get $9,000 more to prevent underage drinking.

This year Lewiston police will receive $16,000 from Safe Schools Healthy Students, up from $11,000 last year; and Auburn police $12,500, up from $7,500 last year.

The money will help police conduct “party patrols,” breaking up or preventing parties where there’s underage drinking; spot checks on stores and bars to ensure they’re not selling or serving anyone under 21, and store surveillance, where police watch parking lots to stop adults buying alcohol for minors.

Since regular spot checks have started in Androscoggin County, 90 percent of businesses are compliant, an improvement to when the checks didn’t happen, Darnell said.

Police find out about where there’ll be parties “through the grapevine,” and by patrolling. When they see a street lined with cars, they start observing and running license plates, Darnell said. If underage drinking is going on, kids are charged with possession and parents are called, he said. “We have to get everyone home safe.”

While police are getting more from Safe Schools Healthy Students, the alcohol enforcement program for Androscoggin County is in jeopardy, Darnell said. It is funded through another federal grant, and the funding could disappear in June, he said.

To try to keep the program going “we are working with Sen. Margaret Craven,” Darnell said.

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