Just before midnight on a chilly Saturday last October, officers from the Montgomery County Police Department’s Alcohol Initiatives Section responded to a complaint about a loud party in Darnestown.
When the homeowner came to the door, she told police that she knew teenagers were drinking with her son in the basement. Officer Jeremy Smalley later noted in his report that the woman seemed unconcerned, even though the partygoers were clearly under the legal drinking age of 21.
After some deliberation, the woman allowed the officers inside, where they found some partyers in the basement and others hiding upstairs. When they gave the teenagers Breathalyzer tests, they recorded blood alcohol content (BAC) readings as high as .12. For a 160-pound man, that’s the equivalent of having had five 12-ounce beers or 1½-ounce shots of hard liquor in an hour; for a 120-pound woman, it equates to three over the same period, according to Stanford University’s Office of Alcohol and Education.
It takes far less than that to affect a drinker’s reflexes and judgment. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), most people begin to experience mild speech, memory, attention and balance impairments at a reading of .05. At .08—the legal limit in Maryland—the average drinker’s muscle coordination and driving skills are significantly impaired. At .12, the person may experience reduced coordination and balance, loss of critical judgment, vision impairment and slower reaction times.
The officers issued 21 citations to teens that night. They also issued 21 citations to the homeowner for violating Maryland’s adult responsibility law—one for each underage person she allowed to drink in her house.
As the officers completed the paperwork for the homeowner’s son—the party’s host—they noted in their report that his mother gave him a “high five” and wanted a picture of him signing his first alcohol citation. Not happening, the police said.
A few days later, Sgt. Mark White, who heads the alcohol enforcement unit, discovered that fake mug shots of the woman and her husband had been posted on Facebook.
Over the past few years, White and his team have seen an increasing number of underage drinking parties where parents or other adults were present. Although the Montgomery County Police Department doesn’t keep statistics on adult involvement in underage drinking parties, a search of 2013 police reports turned up 14 instances in which parents or other adults were home while teenagers were drinking there.
“[Parents] know we’re drinking,” says a recent graduate of Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School. “They just come down [to the basement] once or twice to make sure it’s all under control.”
The same month that police broke up the Darnestown party, a photo from another party cast a spotlight on parental responsibility in underage drinking. The photo, which quickly went viral, showed Maryland Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler at a crowded Bethany Beach house. According to The Baltimore Sun, Gansler and other parents had rented it for their sons’ post-graduation celebration that June. Red Solo cups, the iconic symbol of high school drinking, were visible amid the dancing teenagers, several of whom were shirtless.
Though Gansler said he had stopped by only briefly, critics say he should have investigated to see if the teens were drinking, and broken up the party if they were.
“Do I have any moral authority over other people’s children at Beach Week in another state? I say no,” Gansler told The Baltimore Sun in October when the story broke.
But days later, he admitted his failure to act was wrong.
Parents either excuse or condone underage drinking for a variety of reasons. Many see it as an inevitable part of the high school experience. Some parents—laid-back baby boomers, perhaps, who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s—allow their teenagers and their teenagers’ friends to drink in their homes because they want to appear “cool.” Others justify it as safer than the alternative.
“They’re going to do it anyway, and [letting them drink at home] is so much better than worrying that they’re driving around,” says the mother of a Walt Whitman High School senior who allows her son and his friends to drink at her Bethesda home. “But I certainly don’t hand them the beer,” she says. “And I do collect their keys. No one’s going anywhere.”
A group of mothers with teens at Whitman have even discussed taking turns supervising so their kids can drink at their houses. Think of it as the teen equivalent of a play date, with Mom there to make sure everyone drinks nice. The Whitman women have yet to follow through with a plan. But one of them explains the appeal.
“I don’t care about drinking, I don’t care about anything but the driving,” she says. “If they’re drinking at her house or her house or my house, you know nothing’s going to happen. But please don’t let them drive.”
Some parents see a drinking party as facilitating their son’s or daughter’s popularity—a tap-the-kegs-and-they-will-come philosophy. “We handled a Bethesda party in January where both parents were present,” White says. “They said they were having the party because their child has social issues.”
The divorced mother of a Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior says she and her ex-husband allow their daughter to host drinking parties and invite underage friends. “I feel good when athletes and a lot of the popular kids come,” the girl’s mother says.
When the girl’s father went out of town on business last year, his daughter threw a party at his house—with both parents’ knowledge. “Her father said she could have the party as long as I was there,” the mother says. “But I couldn’t hang out with them. I went home, and then popped in a couple times to check on them. No one looked too intoxicated—but the next day I did find empty cans and a bong or two.”
One Bethesda mother believes supervised drinking at home will teach her son, who’s graduating from Walter Johnson this spring, to drink responsibly and better prepare him for the party scene at college. “We’re just setting them up for trouble if they don’t know how their bodies react when they drink,” she says. “The [minimum] drinking age of 21 is just wrong. It makes them sneak around, which drives me crazy. It was 18 when we grew up, and we survived.”
Then there are the parents who simply don’t want to confront their teens about drinking, even if they disapprove.
“Basically I’m a wimp,” admits the mother of a recent B-CC graduate. “I myself am guilty of knowing what was going on and not stopping it. I’ve even cleaned up from a party the next day. Because the drinking isn’t overt, I don’t say anything.”
A recent Whitman graduate’s mother says she, too, turned a blind eye to underage drinking in her house during those high school years. She still regrets it. “I knew, but didn’t want to face it,” she says. “It can just be such an ugly battle, and as long as they’re at home…”
One night in December 2012, though, she woke at 3 a.m. to a commotion in the basement. She found a partial case of beer, a half-gallon of liquor that was half empty and three teenage boys drunk, including her son.
“One of them was so drunk, he passed out on the floor and started throwing up. I didn’t even know his mother, and my son just begged me not to call her,” the woman says. So she and her son cleaned up the boy and sat up the rest of the night watching him.
“I still regret my decision not to call his mother or 911,” she says. “It was stupid. Almost every day I think about what could have happened to him or how it could’ve easily been my son in someone else’s basement and no one calling me.”
Many parents think that as long as they don’t provide the alcohol or see the teens drink, they’re not responsible, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But they are. All 50 states have laws against providing alcohol to minors.
When police arrive at an underage party, however, it can be tricky sorting out who provided the alcohol. That’s why nine states, including Maryland, have enacted “social host laws.”
These hold the property owner responsible, regardless of who brought the booze. They allow police officers and the State’s Attorney’s Office to charge and prosecute parents who aren’t home during a party, as well as parents who are home and claim they didn’t know there was underage drinking.