Staff Writer

As parents and students plan celebrations to mark proms and graduations over the next several weeks, area police are stepping up efforts to make sure underage drinking isn’t involved.

“That’s the ultimate goal, to deter kids and underage people from drinking alcohol,” said Augusta Police Lt. Christopher Massey.

Numbers offer clues as to the challenge facing police.

More than 10 percent of the state’s alcohol-related crashes involved drivers between the ages of 16 and 20, according to Neal Miner of Healthy Communities of the Capital Area. In Kennebec County, more than one in four of high school students reported having drank alcohol in the past 30 days and one in five seniors engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion.

Miner said the public is more aware of teen drinking during the prom and graduation season.

“The fact of the matter is that some kids make unhealthy choices regularly,” Miner said. “This is the high-profile time, but it’s a year-round event. It really is.”

The Southern Kennebec Underage Drinking Task Force, comprising officers from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office as well as officers from police departments in Augusta, Gardiner and Winthrop, was launched a couple years ago to specifically tackle the problem of underage drinking. The task force is funded with a drug free communities grants through the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Miner said the southern task force was modeled after the Northern Kennebec Underage Drinking Task Force.

Kennebec County Sheriff Deputy David Bucknam, a member of both the southern and northern task forces, said police rely on information provided by parents and others who hear about parties.

“We’re looking for information on where they’re taking place so we can check and make sure the kids are safe,” Bucknam said.

The task for tries to educate parents on how to keep their children from drinking, like reminding them about the family rules and enforcing those rules; keeping a close eye on those with whom the teens will celebrate; and checking with parents of teen’s friends about party plans.

Maine has a zero-tolerance law regarding underage drinking and driving, and everyone under 21 is prohibited from possessing, consuming, purchasing or transporting alcohol, police said.

Bucknam said parents who host parties could be held liable for injuries or damages that result.

“We want to make sure kids have a safe prom year and safe graduation year,” he said.

Massey said when police hear about parties in advance, they talk to parents and the teens to clarify the laws and potential liability.

“The parents we’ve talked to, they didn’t realize there was a party being planned,” Massey said. “The parents play the biggest role in this.”

In addition to thwarting parties, Augusta Police are planning specific enforcement efforts aimed at finding underage drinkers and those who sell alcohol to them illegally. The additional details often center around big events, like the state basketball tournament at the Augusta Civic Center, and graduations. A grant through the office of substance abuse pays for details in Augusta and Hallowell.

“The grant allows us to put extra officers on and target underage drinking,” Massey said. “Part of what we do is just make it difficult. By doing compliance checks, we hope to make it a lot more difficult for them to get alcohol.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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