As students and parents prepare to celebrate proms and graduations, police and substance abuse counselors are urging young people to forgo the alcohol.

“We certainly want kids to have fun, but stay safe,” said Augusta Police Lt. Christopher Massey. “We want everyone to enjoy it, but leave the alcohol alone.”

Prom season has already kicked off for a number of schools, and others are just on the horizon. The graduation season has already started for colleges like the University of Maine, and high school commencements will begin in a few weeks. Augusta venues, Massey said, will host a good number of those proms and graduations. With them come the increased potential for underage drinking and driving under the influence.

“We tend to see an increase this time of year, not just from that demographic, but from everybody,” Massey said.

Police, working with the Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, will respond by stepping up education and enforcement, said Neill Miner, substance abuse prevention program manager for Health Communities. He said his agency talks to students and parents about the health risks of using alcohol and potential consequences of driving intoxicated or police action. This time of year the agency bolsters that message by providing grants for increased law enforcement.

“We spend a little more money, but our messages are similar throughout the year,” Miner said.

Massey said the increased enforcement is more than just checking areas known for teen parties. Police also will run compliance checks on stores and restaurants that serve alcohol and conduct what he called shoulder taps, during which an underage person working with police will seek out strangers in a store parking lot to purchase alcohol. Police also will monitor venues and parking lots that host proms and graduations to try to prevent underage drinking. Augusta police, for a number of years now, have monitored the parking lot during the state basketball tournament. Police notify participating schools of the effort and encourage them to pass the warning along to students. Massey said when the program first began officers would frequently catch underage drinkers, but there have been no offenses the past two seasons.

“Our focus is to prevent it before it even happens,” Massey said.

Schools have been receptive to those enforcement efforts, Miner said. Some schools, like Winthrop High School, which has its prom in Augusta, specifically ask for police to help eliminate underage drinking. Schools also are proactive about warning students and parents about the increase in police enforcement.

“It’s the presence that’s important,” Miner said of police. “Part of it is being there, but also ahead of time letting schools know that they’re going to be there.”

Deputy Chief Ryan Reardon of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office said his agency also will step up patrols during the prom and graduation season.

“There’s that new-found freedom of recently graduating or the school year going away,” Reardon said. “Sometimes judgment isn’t always the best.”

He said the best preventatives are parents who know where there children are, what they’re doing and with whom they are spending time. Parents also should set reasonable curfews and rules.

“The best way to combat a lot of these problems are those three things,” Reardon said.

Virgil Hammonds, superintendent of Regional School Unit 2, which includes high schools in Farmingdale, Monmouth and Richmond, said parents in his district play a key role in modeling correct behavior both in and out of the schools.

“There’s a great culture in the RSU of supporting our kids,” he said. “We’re really fortunate.”

Hammonds said administrators work with teachers, counselors and coaches to help deliver the message of responsibility and safety, but the community plays a key role as well. Hammonds said school administrators work with local police departments and town officials to deter underage drinking.

“We really approach it from a communal perspective,” he said.

Programs like Project Graduation, which is run for all the graduating seniors in RSU 2, help deter underage drinking by giving students a safe, fun place to celebrate.

“Often it’s the last time they might all be together in one location, so it’s a festive event,” Hammonds said. “Thankfully our parents are a humongous part of putting those together.”

Miner said there are at least four reasons young people drink. Feeling good and fitting in top the list, but students are also motivated by curiosity and a desire to feel older. Parents who monitor their children’s behavior and prohibit the use of alcohol, coupled with an increased police presence, can help students think twice about all of their motivations to drink.

“If their parents are saying these are family rules, don’t do it, or if the schools are saying there will be enforcement, it gives kids a way to say, ‘No, I can’t do that because we’ll get caught,'” Miner said. “It gives kids part of the basis to make the right decision.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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