Officials in Stratford, Conn., convened a group of middle and high school students last year to quiz them on their attitudes toward alcohol. The officials were dismayed, if not surprised, when the teens reported that they thought alcohol, unlike tobacco and other drugs, was largely harmless, that binge drinking among their peers was habitual, and that drinking enough to pass out was funny. But the officials were perhaps most displeased to hear that the place kids most often got drunk was their own or their friends' homes and that some parents either provided alcohol or looked the other way if teens brought it to drink in the backyard or basement.
Spurred in part by that information, the Stratford town council is considering an ordinance that would allow police to enter a private residence if they suspect someone under 21 is consuming liquor, even if adults are present. Dubbed the house-party ordinance, it has been adopted in 43 of the state's 169 municipalities, but in Stratford it has split neighbors between those who see the measure as a way to curb underage drinking and those who argue that it undermines parental authority and violates privacy rights.
Most teens still do their drinking when adults aren't around. But many parents have concluded that teen drinking is inevitable, and given the options, they prefer to have their kids drink at home under adult supervision rather than in a park or parking lot. Some parents even play host to "tent" parties, at which they confiscate car keys and provide a place for kids to spend the night. Public opinion, however, seems to be against that approach, and state and local governments are beginning to enact laws designed to stem underage drinking by targeting adults. Adults face six months in jail, for example, under a law passed in Kansas in 2003, if they allow anyone under 21 to drink in their home (an exception is made for giving one's child beer). A similar bill is pending in Wyoming. In Connecticut, enthusiasm for house-party ordinances is picking up momentum, with 22 towns jumping on the wagon in the past 11/2 years alone. Legislation has also been proposed to adopt a statewide law.
Proponents of the Connecticut ordinances say they address a loophole in the state law that makes it a crime for anyone under 21 to drink on public property but does not prohibit drinking in private homes. "If police go to a home and look through a window and see a kid drinking beer, there's nothing they can do unless they're invited in," says Craig Turner, vice chair of the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking (CCSUD), which has been a major force in pushing for the ordinances. "And even if they manage to get invited in, the only thing they can do is ask the kids to pour the liquor out or nab a kid if he creates a disturbance when he leaves the house." Under the house-party law, drinking by anyone under 21 on private property is a crime. Police can enter a home and issue citations and fines to both minors and any adults present whether or not they provided the alcohol. The provisions differ slightly from town to town, but the fines generally range from $50 to $100, with a first offense considered an infraction and the second a misdemeanor. Exceptions are made for kids who drink when their parent or legal guardian is present, but even if teens have their parents' permission to drink at a friend's house, they are in violation if that parent is not on the premises.