Sharks have been in North Carolina waters since the dawn of time, but we only begin to comprehend the risks after a number of shark attacks result in lost limbs. Underage drinking has been treated as a “rite of passage” for years, yet it takes a tragedy for the public to take notice. The recent incident involving a UNC junior and the deaths of three people, including a 6-year-old child, raises serious questions we must learn from to prevent such future tragedies.
It’s too easy to place blame solely on the person who chose to drink and drive. While the young man made a horrible decision, a host of other conditions had to be met for this incident to have occurred. The young man, age 20, was able to obtain alcohol from several sources, each of which was an opportunity to stop, or at least reduce, his consumption. He also drank to the point of intoxication (twice the legal limit to drive) which, regardless of his age, should have ended the service of alcohol to him. Friends, though they reportedly tried to stop him, did not report to law enforcement that an intoxicated person was driving, perhaps to avoid causing trouble for their friend. Unfortunately, he not only found trouble but ended the life of others and devastated the lives of countless others, himself included.
These contributing factors are mentioned not to shift blame from the accused but to highlight that events such as these are not unavoidable. They can be prevented by a number of community safeguards, diligence in adhering to and enforcement of the law, and a shift in cultural norms that often perceive underage drinking (as well as alcohol abuse by young adults over 21) as "kids being kids." Even older adults who experience significant legal or other problems due to their drinking are often continuing patterns that began as underage drinkers.
Access to alcohol by those under 21 is far too common in our community and most local youth report that it is easy to obtain. The use of a fake ID, sadly not uncommon, can be a very serious offense. Using someone else’s ID, as in this case, is considered identity theft; a criminal offense. The accused reportedly used the ID at two establishments in Chapel Hill, both of which have previous ABC violations.
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Many establishments check ID at the door but this is simply not good enough to protect both the business and the customer. Bartenders, or the employees directly serving the alcohol, are responsible for checking ID and ensuring the customer is over 21. Servers also need to be much more vigilant in assessing the validity of IDs. A cursory glance should not be considered acceptable, as happens too often. In most cases, there are methods for recognizing potentially false identification and proprietors of establishments selling alcohol should ensure their employees are well trained to know their rights and legal responsibilities.
Local law enforcement agencies, in partnership with NC ALE, have made concerted efforts to reduce underage drinking by checking local convenience and grocery stores for alcohol sales compliance. In June, the Chapel Hill Police Department conducted a compliance check, which resulted in 25 establishments being cited for not checking identification prior to serving alcohol. According to ABC Commission reports, 18 establishments in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have been cited for alcohol violations in 2015. These checks, followed-up with assistance and training, must remain consistent and reliable throughout the county to prevent complacency.
Another recent trial highlights the most common source of alcohol for underage drinkers: the home. A Raleigh couple faced charges of aiding and abetting consumption of alcohol by a minor after the death of an 18-year-old who had been drinking at an event in their home. Though ultimately criminally acquitted, they may still be open to civil litigation. They will still have to live with the knowledge that, had they been more attentive and careful to ensure youth were not being served in their home, a tragedy may have been averted.
Once again, we are reminded of the quote, “Holding young people solely responsible for underage drinking is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted stream.” Everyone, especially adults, has a part to play in preventing these tragedies. We need to both understand our own role and hold others accountable for their parts in order to prevent future loss of life and other serious consequences of alcohol abuse.
Gayane Chambless is the coordinator of the Orange Partnership for Alcohol and Drug Free Youth, a program housed at Mental Health America of the Triangle www.orangepartnership.org; 919 942-8083