Push moves forward to make hosts responsible

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By Alex Wimsatt

 MOUNT WASHINGTON - In the wake of the Mount Washington house party that resulted in the arrest of 16 young adults and the party's 50-year-old host, local residents are demanding those who allow anyone under the age of 21 to drink on their watch be held accountable. 

Nearly half a decade after county officials dismissed a proposed social host liability ordinance advocated by the Kentucky Agency For Substance Abuse Policy and the Bullitt County Partners In Prevention Coalition, Seven Counties Services Regional Prevention Director Patty Gregory says it's time Bullitt Fiscal Court reconsider. 

Though social host ordinances vary among cities and counties across the country, these laws generally state that adults who provide alcohol to minors or those who are obviously intoxicated can be held legally liable if the person is killed or injured or kills or injures another person. 

Gregory, who spearheaded the effort to persuade county officials to take up social host legislation around 2007, said underage drinking is a serious problem that has been neglected for far too long in Bullitt County. 

A social host ordinance, Gregory argued, would discourage adults from contributing to underage drinking. 

After all, Gregory said one of the reasons underage drinking is so common is because alcohol is so easily accessible.

"Regionally, we know the kids are saying the same thing. They're getting alcohol from their friends, their parent or relatives...only a small percentage of young adults are actually purchasing alcohol themselves," she said. 

"What social host laws do is make alcohol less accessible...When a social host ordinance is enforced adults know it's not okay to buy alcohol for anyone under 21, it's not okay to drink alcohol on their property and that they could get into big trouble if they allow it," Gregory said. 

She said placing greater liability on parents may also encourage them to become more aware of the harmful affects alcohol can have on young adults and the importance of talking with their children about the consequences of underage drinking. 

Gregory, who is also an active member of both the Kentucky Agency For Substance Abuse Policy and the Partners In Prevention Coalition, said that in lieu of pursuing a social host ordinance the coalition has considered lobbying fiscal court to adopt an unruly gathering ordinance, one of many strategies the coalition has discussed to curtail underage drinking.

Bullitt County Public Schools Safe and Drug-Free Schools Coordinator Jaime Goldsmith, who also serves as chairperson for Partners In Prevention, said adults who allow anyone under the age of 21 to drink on their property should be held accountable, which is why she has supported social host liability laws since she assumed her current position with the district in 2007. 

And, like Gregory, Goldsmith said she hopes the buzz surrounding the Mount Washington house party will spark a serious discussion about underage drinking in Bullitt County, particularly the community's role in preventing a potentially devastating trend.

As a parent herself, Goldsmith said she wouldn't permit her kids to drink at home, much less allow them to go to another adult's house to drink.

"Consuming alcohol under 21 is illegal and for an adult to allow it is just wrong," she said, adding that the community should be aware of the significant number of adults who are willing to purchase alcohol for adolescents and young adults.

The problem is, Goldsmith said, there are many adults who think it's okay for teens to drink. 

"We have a lot of parents in this county who think a little alcohol is not bad," she said. "I'm not saying that makes them bad parents. I know we have a lot of great parents in this county, but it only takes a few bad ones to have a bad party like the one in Mount Washington. Things could've been much worse if the party hadn't been busted." 

Goldsmith added that the legal drinking age was not chosen at random, explaining that there is scientific reasoning behind why it's 21.

Research shows that brain development continues well into a person’s 20s and alcohol can affect this development, in addition to contributing to a range of other problems, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"Every time these kids pour alcohol in their bodies they're impairing their mental development and decision making skills," Goldsmith said. "Alcohol and teens just don't mix."

And while BCPS tries to prevent underage drinking through educational programs in the schools, such as Dare, Lifeskills and Too Good for Drugs and Violence, Goldsmith said prevention starts in the home.

"We can't be the only ones talking about this," she said. "Parents need to talk about drugs and alcohol with their kids...We have to control alcohol in our homes, talk to our kids about it, and set boundaries."

Asked if she felt a social host ordinance would curb underage drinking, Goldsmith said she was certain it would reduce access to alcohol and discourage parents and other adults from allowing teens to drink on their property.

"Do I think it will eliminate the problem completely, no, but anything we can do to reduce the negative consequences of drugs and alcohol for our kids is worth a shot," she said. 

Additionally, Goldsmith said not having a social host ordinance in Bullitt County sends a bad message. 

"It kind of sends the message that we're somewhat tolerent of that happening. We shouldn't tolerate it at all," she said. "I'm not saying there is anything wrong with alcohol. Alcohol is fine at the legal age, but under the age of 21 it is not." 

Bullitt County Health Department Health Educator Cynthia Brown, who was part of the initial push for county government to adopt a social host ordinance, said she supported the idea because it was needed. 

With that Brown said she hopes there will be a renewed push for social host legislation, given recent events.

"We tried to let people know this was a problem in the county and it kind of fell on deaf ears," Brown said. "Now maybe they'll take notice." 

Brown said underage drinking at adult-hosted parties is not a new problem. Actually she said they're quite common, and while many local residents and elected officials believe there are state laws that hold social hosts accountable there aren't

"A social host ordinance would kind of fill the gaps," Brown said.

Kentucky is one of 26 states with no statewide social host laws, however, at least 20 counties and cities in the commonwealth have adopted social host ordinances, though Oldham County is the only community in the greater Louisville area with such legislation on the books. 

As a private attorney and long-time member of Partners In Prevention, Bullitt County Attorney Monica Robinson worked with drug and alcohol prevention activists to draft a social host ordinance modeled after Oldham County's six years ago.

Robinson said that while fiscal court may not have been receptive, she has always been receptive, adding that she would gladly defend any legal challenges against a social host ordinance if one is adopted. 

"It's cutting-edge law, but you've gotta start somewhere," she said. "I think we need it. I think we've needed it for a long time."

Robinson couldn't offer comment on the effectiveness of local social host legislation, but she said any law that's intended to help children must be effective.

In defending social host liability laws, Robinson said, "Laws are meant to change the morals of society. When we have a society that believes it's okay to allow teens to gather at their home and drink  you have to have laws to say no it's not." 

Asked if a local ordinance would have any teeth to it considering there's no state law dealing with social host liability, Robinson responded, "Sure. Fiscal court can put as much teeth as they want in an ordinance," she said. "There are several options."