Over the next several months, Impact Communities members will be gathering community input about whether Waxahachie should consider adoption of a social host ordinance.

Social ordinances provide for a civil penalty (fine) and hold adults accountable for underage drinking at their homes or on their property. As a civil process, they are easier to enforce and require a lower burden of proof than criminal cases. They do not replace criminal law but serve as an additional, available tool for enforcement purposes, depending upon the circumstances. 

Similar efforts are under way in the cities of Ennis and Red Oak, according to Impact coalition coordinator Jennifer Heggland and Drug Free Communities program manager Shari Phillips, who are working with others on the initiative.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States, with excessive drinking responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year. The economic cost to the United States in 2010 was $24 billion, the CDC indicates.

Heggland and Phillips have also conducted local surveys that have findings in line with those of the CDC. A Drug Free Communities student survey in 2017 shows alcohol to be the most commonly used substance among Waxahachie youth, with 18-percent reporting they had consumed alcohol during the past year.

A Social Access Survey done in 2016 found that parties on private properties were the primary places where Waxahachie youth had access to and consumed alcohol. The same survey noted that 75-percent of the youth were directly aware of fights that had occurred as a result of underage drinking and with 35-percent aware of underage youth driving after drinking. 

Forty-eight-percent of Waxahachie youth participating in the survey said they knew of violence that had occurred as a result of underage drinking, with 16-percent aware of a sexual assault that had occurred.

From statewide data, Heggland and Phillips have calculated an annual cost of $546 for each Waxahachie household that stems from underage drinking, with the highest costs stemming from violence ($336) and high-risk sex ($67). 

The cost to humans

It’s about more than just statistics and data; there’s an intangible price due to the human costs involved with underage drinking.

“We’ve had two deaths under the age of 21 in Ellis County in the last two years,” Phillips told the Sun. “One kid is too many to have a death when it was preventable.”

Underage drinking is a major issue, which is why the initiative to explore a social host ordinance for Waxahachie and its sister Ellis County cities is under way. Social host ordinances have proven to be a successful deterrent to adults who provide access to alcohol and their properties, studies have shown.

Findings indicate that passage of a social host ordinance helps reduce calls for service by law enforcement, with 75-percent of law enforcement officers reporting the ordinance is an effective tool. Overall, communities with social host ordinances have reported fewer large underage drinking parties.

Although the final wording for a Waxahachie social host ordinance would still be developed, typically, such ordinances classify parties where underage drinking is occurring as a public nuisance. In their position statement, Heggland and Phillip note this “would easily fit in with current Waxahachie law.” 

Social host ordinances also provide a way for a city’s first responders to recover costs incurred by responding to underage drinking parties. Most Texas cities have chosen for a cost recovery option to only apply to repeat offenders, they said.

Texas cities that have adopted a social host ordinance include El Paso, Highland Park, Odessa, Palmview and San Antonio. 

Reducing underage drinking requires community-based efforts that incorporate comprehensive strategies that include enforcement and educational campaigns, according to the CDC. In their studies, Heggland and Phillips found that 93-percent of Waxahachie adults support increased enforcement around underage drinking, with 86-percent of adults disagreeing with adults who provide alcohol to their own children’s friends.

Education component

Coinciding with the initiative to gather community input on a possible social host ordinance is Impact Communities’ desire to educate the public about the dangers of underage drinking. A community forum is in the planning stages, where people can ask questions and get the information they need.

In particular, Phillips wants adults to understand that while Texas law does allow a parent to provide his or her child with an alcoholic drink – no one else has that right and it is illegal to do so. 

It should be parents making that decision, she said, noting one of the slogans for the initiative is “My Kid, My Call.” 

And while a parent can choose to do so, much of the educational process will be to inform people about the risks of underage drinking.

“Even at the age of 21, the brain is still developing,” Phillips said. “The longer you let the brain develop before drinking any alcohol is to help prevent an addiction and dependence.”

Besides the physical impacts of drinking, there are many other risks, as well, Heggland said, noting these include violence, high-risk sex, sexual assault, accidents and alcohol poisoning, among others.

“[The educational component] is about keeping kids safe and holding adults responsible,” she said, with Phillips noting they have multiple strategies to share with both the young and with adults and parents.

Going into prom and graduation seasons, and then into summertime freedom means more diligence is needed, they said. 

Both Heggland and Phillips encourage people to contact them with any questions or com-ments. Contact Heggland at jheggland@drugfreegen.org or 972-937-1531. Contact Phillips at sphillips@drugfreegen.org or 972-937-1531.

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