The Kansas Department of Transportation wants to bust up keg parties this summer.
Every summer, Douglas County sheriff's deputies patrol the hot spots where young people gather at night to listen to music and talk, but mostly just to drink.
There are about 10 of these places scattered throughout the county, but they're not bars. Instead, the teen-agers pick a field near an out-of-the-way road to gather.
"Oh yeah, we know about them," said Sheriff's Lt. Don Crowe. "There's probably eight to 10 places that we regularly check, but that depends on how many calls for service and if we have time to get to them."
When deputies crash a field party, the sight of the patrol vehicle elicits an automatic response, with minors throwing cups, cans and bottles on the ground. Some scatter in hopes of escaping without a ticket, Crowe said, and more than a few are successful.
"Some of the parties are so large, you're not going to stop everybody," he said. "We might get 15 to 20 corralled, but three times that many might get away. We're not going to chase anybody down and make the situation more dangerous; we're not about that."
What the sheriff's department, Lawrence Police Department and other law enforcement agencies are about is stopping underage drinking, and this summer the Kansas Department of Transportation wants to help.
Call for help
KDOT has issued a plea for citizens to call police or sheriff's deputies when they suspect underage drinking at rural field parties or house parties in the city. In some cases, the department hopes to put the brakes on the parties before they even start by encouraging teen-agers to call authorities when they hear about the bashes.
"Really, the primary goal is to heighten the awareness of the problem of underage drinking," said Rosalie Thornburgh, chief of KDOT's bureau of traffic safety in Topeka. "It doesn't necessarily have to be in a pasture or a field. We want to allow people in any community, whether rural or urban, to call.
"We know that law enforcement agencies respond to these calls. At the same time, it's ultimately protecting the safety and welfare of the younger people in the community."
While underage drinking is at the heart of the campaign, the department is also targeting the drunken driving that takes place when the youths leave the parties and go home.
"It's a dangerous situation," Crowe said. "Most of these young people don't have the maturity to drink responsibly, and they'll get behind the wheel and drive home. We want them all to come back to school next semester."
Teen-age drinking prevalent
Preliminary results from a spring semester survey of 754 Kansas high students show that two-thirds drink alcohol. The survey, commissioned by KDOT and conducted by DCCCA in Lawrence, highlights the popularity of parties the department is trying to bust. Forty-seven percent of the ninth- through 12th-grade respondents admit attending a keg party in the last six months.
Dan Schulte, director of evaluation services at DCCCA, said underage drunk driving causes more injuries and deaths than some of the prominent topics in the headlines these days, from violence in schools to teen-age drug use.
"Underage drinking and driving has been such a commonplace thing for so long, people don't give it much thought," Schulte said. "... But you're much more likely to be injured by driving after drinking, or riding with someone who has been drinking. That's where the danger lies."
Anti-drinking-and-driving campaigns do work, however, said Schulte. While the number of accidents involving people under the age of 21 is rising due to increases in the number of people driving and miles driven, the numbers of alcohol- and drug-related crashes are dropping.
"We are making an impact," Schulte said.
KDOT representatives met with Douglas County sheriff's officials last month, Crowe said, and it was agreed that dispatchers would keep a tally of outlaw parties this summer.
"This year we haven't had such a problem, but last year we had one about every other week," Crowe said.
Underage drinkers could be ticketed as minors in possession at field parties. Shelley Diehl, the Douglas County assistant district attorney in charge of juvenile cases, said she handled 25 minor-in-possession cases in 1997, 19 last year and 10 so far this year. Those numbers don't include charges against anyone 18 to 21, or cases with companion charges such as driving under the influence or open containers.
Even when deputies can't prove minors were consuming alcohol, there's still a deterrent in their arsenal.
"A lot of the time, we'll call the parents and tell them their son or daughter was at a party where alcohol was being consumed," he said.
It's typical for the kegs to go unclaimed at the parties, but law enforcement officials will track down the person who bought the keg by checking liquor store records. Adults who supply alcohol to minors also could face charges.
"One of the approaches we use in affecting the DUI problem is a deterrent approach, and clearly law enforcement is a deterrent," Thornburgh said.
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.