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Authorities explore ways to curb underage drinking

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Local authorities use media events like a recent "holiday dinner" to remind minors that drinking and driving can be fatal. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Underage drinking made headlines last fall in northwest Minnesota. In September, the body of a 19-year-old college student was found in the Red River. His death was linked to binge drinking at a fraternity party. A month later, an 18-year-old Fergus Falls man who was binge drinking was severely injured when he fell from a rooftop. The two incidents have people wondering how kids get their booze.

Moorhead, Minn. — A dozen teenagers sit in a small classroom, eyeing their instructor. But this isn't a normal classroom. The subject isn't math or history. It's a briefing session for juveniles working for police departments in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Tonight, these kids will walk into randomly chosen bars or liquor stores and try to buy alcohol. Moorhead police officer Scott Kostohryz will be working with one of these teenagers, and before hitting the streets, he goes over the procedures with the 19-year-old assigned to him. Her name is Laura.

Kostohryz tells Laura not to lie about her age. If asked about her date of birth, he instructs her to answer truthfully. Once the briefing is complete, Laura is given a remote microphone to wear.

The officer stresses the idea is to test bartenders or clerks, not entrap them. Laura is instructed to name the establishment before walking in and trying to buy beer. The tape can serve as evidence if the bar fails the compliance check.

Kostohryz and his partner, officer Seth Saarinen, check eight establishments. None of them serve or sell alcohol to Laura.

Saarinen says the compliance checks are one way to limit how kids get alcohol. But police are struggling to limit another source -- adults who buy for underage kids.

"A lot of times we'll see, they'll buy a large amount of alcohol and they'll try to make a profit off of it," says Saarinen. "Whether it be a keg or going to the liquor store and just buying a lot of beer, they're not afraid to sell it to younger people, and we see a lot of problems with that."

People who sell alcohol to minors can be fined $1,000 or more, and they might get jail time. Saarinen thinks one way to get at the problem is to put more officers on the job. His partner Scott Kostohryz agrees.

"With more officers we're able to close down house parties and write tickets to everybody that's in violation there," says Kostohryz. "We might not have the manpower on a normal night, due to heavier call loads. I think step one would be enforcement, but to do that we need more manpower."

With tight budgets, finding the money to hire more cops, or to pay overtime to target adults isn't going to happen.

Over the past year, 30 kids under the age of 21 have been rushed to the Meritcare Hospital emergency room in Fargo, because they drank too much.

For the past three months, Mike Huckfeldt has spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms. He sits on a couch and watches fish dart around in a nearby aquarium.

Huckfeldt knows firsthand about the problems of adults buying alcohol for kids. On Halloween, his son Mike, 18, had someone buy him liquor. His son and some friends went on a drinking binge. Later that night, the younger Huckfeldt fell 35 feet from a roof and sustained a traumatic brain injury.

"So far he's had a miraculous recovery, he's done really well," says Huckfeldt. "He's got another surgery upcoming, but he's better than we could have possibly hoped."

Since the accident, Huckfeldt has spent all of his time at the hospital with his son. Once his boy is able to go home, the elder Huckfeldt wants to get involved, making people realize buying alcohol for underage kids is a dumb thing to do.

"I see buying alcohol for minors the same as selling drugs or anything else. It's the same thing," says Huckfeldt. "You're wrecking young people's lives, whether it's a legal item that you purchase and give to somebody or not, it's destroying people."

Huckfeldt knows who bought his son the liquor and he's given the man's name to the Fergus Falls police. Police investigated and identified a man in his 40s as the chief suspect.

They've turned the case over to the Otter Tail County Attorney's office. The police recommend the man be charged with a felony count of furnishing alcohol to a minor. To date, no charges have been filed, but Huckfeldt says he hopes the case will serve as a warning to others.

"I hope the man that bought the liquor is stopped. I think already we've pretty much done that, and I would just like anybody who is doing the same thing to really think about what they're doing," says Huckfeldt. "I don't know how we can change it, but I know it's something that needs to be dealt with. Maybe stiffer penalties for people who are buying alcohol for minors would be a start."

People who work on prevention programs say stiffer penalties are only one part of the solution. Jane Vangsness, assistant coordinator of Safe Communities at the Fargo Public Health Department, says one encouraging sign is a growing awareness of the problem, especially by high school kids.

Vangsness says this past spring before prom, local kids worked with a liquor store owner to develop a unique program. The kids used stickers to urge adults not to buy alcohol for underage drinkers.

"You place stickers that talk about the penalties, the liabilities and risks that are involved with buying for kids that are underage," says Vangsness. "You stick those on things that are commonly bought for underage people -- wine coolers, those type of things, and also the cases of beer."

Vangsness says the program was a success.

"These students are making a stand to those older people saying, 'You know what? We need you as a role model,'" says Vangsness. "We need you to say, 'No, this isn't right, and these are the penalties that you're going to be held to if you do this.'"

Vangsness says programs that target kids, telling them about the dangers of alcohol, are working. What's needed is more adults and parents to set a good example. She thinks if adults tell their kids the dangers of alcohol, it's a lesson that will be handed down.

More and more police, judges and counselors are saying the same thing -- kids don't need adults to be their friends, they need them to be parents and role models.

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