Dealing with drinking

Officials search for answers to alcohol use among minors

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A series of incidents in which Steamboat Springs stores sold alcohol to minors points to a communitywide problem that will require a communitywide solution, officials say.

"Everyone has to take responsibility when something like this happens," Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich said. "That means parents, kids, the school, students. We all have to take responsibility. We need to ask ourselves, 'What are we going to do?'"

Steamboat Springs police officers conducted a routine compliance check on stores that sell alcohol in the city last month. During the check, nine of 11 stores sold beer to a 20-year-old man working with police.

It was the worst performance by local stores since police have been doing compliance checks here, City Clerk Julie Jordan said.

Then, just two weeks later, another liquor store was cited for selling a bottle of Captain Morgan's rum to a 20-year-old man. That man turned himself in to police last week, confessing that he gave the rum to Adele Dombrowski, a Steamboat Springs High School senior who was found dead Sept. 24. Police said Dombrowski and other teens were

drinking the night before her death, but an autopsy has ruled out alcohol as the cause of death, County Coroner Rob Ryg said.

Crime and punishment

The rash of recent incidents is alarming enough that the Steamboat Springs City Council --he city's liquor licensing authority --s considering steps to impose harsher penalties on stores caught selling to minors.

City Council President Paul Strong said he was shocked when he heard the results of the Sept. 8 compliance check. Three of the businesses that failed the check -- Go-fer Foods, Arctic Liquors and Ski Haus Liquors -- had been previous offenders.

Compliance checks conducted in January 2005 and November 2004 had better results -- five of 18 restaurants, liquor stores and bars failed to ID a minor who attempted to purchase alcohol.

"We were surprised by the results of the last one because that is not our history here," Strong said. "I have no idea what went wrong. Even if it is a fluke, it's still a big problem."

Currently, store clerks who sell to minors and owners of stores that sell to minors are cited by police. Such cases are handled by the court system.

Jordan is putting together a presentation for City Council members that Strong said will spur discussions about what additional action the city can take in the future when stores sell to minors. Jordan said one option is establishing an administrative hearing process. Under such a process, the City Council would review incidents of selling to minors and consider penalties. Examples of penalties include putting a store on probation, suspending a store's license for three days, imposing a fine or suspending a store's license indefinitely.

Strong thinks the City Coun--cil will focus harsher punishments on repeat offenders.

"This is obviously a big concern of everyone in the community, and we'll look to address it a number of ways," he said. "I hope that the City Council, the police, the schools, everyone will come together on this."

Education is key

Brian Hoza, Colorado Moun--tain College's assistant campus dean for student services, said alcohol education is a focus at the college.

"Our students do deal with drug and alcohol issues," Hoza said. "As part of our education, we do programs during orientation and in our residence halls that deal with alcohol abuse and alcohol education."

CMC has a zero-tolerance policy for its students, which means that alcohol is not permitted anywhere on campus or at college events unless approved by the college president.

Hoza said students sign contracts acknowledging that they understand the school's drug and alcohol policies and that they agree to adhere to them.

Students who violate the school's policy face punishments ranging from probation to suspension and criminal charges if police are involved.

Hoza thinks more can be done to curb the underage drinking problems students face.

"We're never content with the level of compliance from our students," he said. "We're always concerned that (underage drinking) is happening."

Hoza said what's most concerning is that the students he confronts say obtaining alcohol here is never a problem.

"They've developed ways of knowing how to do that. It's accepted as not a problem. They have never expressed any difficulty in getting whatever they wanted," he said.

Knezevich said high school students also say it is relatively easy to get alcohol.

"This is a community that prides itself on an adult culture. The adults party, and the kids see that. It does filter down," he said. "They have no problem whatsoever getting alcohol in this community."

Knezevich and Hoza say it is important that the community as a whole combat the problem.

"Our alcohol policy is one of the strongest in taking a zero-acceptance policy," Knezevich said. "Any time a student is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, has alcohol on campus or has been drinking at a school event or on a field trip, there is a punishment."

Knezevich said students face suspension or expulsion for alcohol- and drug-related offenses. Students take health classes that focus on drug and alcohol awareness and education. Older students also take a physiology class that teaches the biological effects of alcohol on a young person's body.

Business response

The City Council has never taken away a store's liquor license for selling to minors, though Strong said the idea will surface in future discussions.

Jordan said that although the latest failures raise concerns, past history has shown that liquor stores in the city are responsible operators who regularly seek ID from those trying to buy alcohol.

"I really believe most of our retail liquor stores are carding people. They're not taking any of this lightly," Jordan said.

Greg Stetman -- majority owner of Central Park Liquors, one of the businesses cited during the Sept. 8 compliance check -- said it was the first time the store has failed a compliance check in his 6 1/2 years as manager.

"I don't know what in the world happened that night," he said. "All we can do is the best we can, which is what we're doing.

"This has been a real eye-opener. I thought our act was together, but apparently it has to be more diligent."

Stetman said he is implementing internal sting operations in which employees will be awarded $100 bonuses if they ID the underage buyer used by store management. Employees who don't ID the minor will be fired. The store also will hang more signs telling customers 30 and younger to provide proof of age.

Stetman and Go-fer owner Dan Bonner, in conjunction with the police department, plan to hold a seminar to educate employees about alcohol and to provide additional alcohol-responsibility training.

It's not only in Steamboat

Jordan said all employees who sell alcohol, whether servers in restaurants or cashiers at liquor stores, are required to have some kind of alcohol training, such as TIPS training. Grocery store and convenience store clerks do not have to have the same training. By law, liquor store employees must be 21 to sell alcohol. Restaurant servers can provide alcohol at age 18 if they are directly supervised by a manager or headwaiter.

Police Capt. Joel Rae said the police department issued 100 "minor in possession" citations in 2004. This year, 105 such tickets have been issued.

Rae said underage drinking is a problem in most communities.

"It's like this everywhere," he said. "I am not minimizing the problem by any means, but this certainly isn't an epidemic. It's concerning to us, and we are going to continue to do everything we can to limit our kids getting alcohol.

"We're aware of the shoulder-tapping that goes on here, we're aware that underage people have older brothers and sisters, and we're aware that seniors who graduated three years ago are now 21."

Undersheriff Dan Taylor does not think young people give enough consideration to the consequences of their actions when they pick up a drink.

"We're trying to help them stay alive and be healthy. We don't want to see them with a criminal history, but what do we do?" he asked.

Taylor does not see an easy "flip-the-switch" solution to the problem, but he does think it's something the community can work collectively to address.

"Our role is to do everything we can to help get these kids home safely. When they make bad choices, we help guide them through the system, even if we have to cite someone," he said.

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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