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Hill Countys underage drinking problem

 

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The glass eye in Chris Brown's right socket didn't stop him. He had a reputation and the nickname "Crazy" to uphold.

He lost the eye in October 1998. He was a passenger in a car that struck a cow large enough to stop the Pontiac Grand Am in its tracks. The animal crashed through the front windshield and shattered Brown's face as if he were a porcelain doll. A dagger of glass pierced his right eye.

Several underage occupants of the car, including the driver, were intoxicated. In the front seat, 19-year-old Brown and the driver had been engaged in conversation and ignoring the road in the Bear Paw Mountains when the cow approached from the left, Brown said.

Doctors inserted 16 metal plates and 36 screws to repair Brown's face. They removed his right eye, and performed seven reconstructive surgeries on his face. A doctor used one of Brown's ribs to rebuild his nose.

It was a couple of months later when a friend challenged him to drink a case of beer. Brown, still wearing a face cast, upped the ante, saying he would drink a case of beer every day for a year.

"I didn't eat. I would wake up and puke," said Brown, a 1997 graduate of Havre High School. "I couldn't even drink water."

He lasted 270 days.

Underage drinking is a national dilemma. It costs society about $53 billion annually, including the costs associated with traffic crashes, violent crime, suicide attempts and treatment, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Juvenile Justice and Dependancy Prevention.

In Hill County, driving-age children pick up their parents at local bars, and underage saloon patrons nonchalantly carry beer bottles from one bar to the next.

"It was all about being able to drink the most, being the best partier ... and it probably is now too," said Brown, 23, who hasn't had a drink since he entered a Butte rehabilitation clinic in June 1999.

Some parents appear to not only condone underage drinking, but act as facilitators.

"Havre is the kind of place where, for your 18th birthday, parents throw you a keg," said Havre native Julie Toldness, a junior at Montana State University-Northern.

Consider:

In 2001, 623 MIP tickets were issued by Hill County law enforcement 422 in Havre City Court and 201 in the county.

"There are times when I think about what the state thinks when they see 422 MIPs coming out of Havre, Montana," City Court Judge Joyce Perszyk said. "Are we the capital of MIPs in the state?"

Possibly. Havre last year had the same number of MIPs as Bozeman, a city nearly three times its size. Hill County, population 16,673, and Rocky Boy's reservation which stretches into Chouteau County combined for 1,264 MIPs in 2001. That's one for every 13 Hill County residents. Excluding MIPs on Rocky Boy, Hill County underagers still accumulated more than three times as many MIPs as Fergus County, population 11,893.

Results of a random survey conducted in spring 2001 revealed that students at Havre High drink more and at an earlier age than the statewide average of their peers. Sixty-six percent of Havre students reported having at least one drink in the 30 days prior to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The average in Montana is 54 percent.

The same survey found that the majority of those Havre students began experimenting with alcohol by the age of 14.

The problem is also pervasive at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in southern Hill County. Lastyear, 641 citations for minor in possession of alcohol were issued at Rocky Boy to those under 18, nearly double the number of students who attend grades seven through 12 at Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools.

Gilbert Belgarde, chief judge of the Chippewa Cree Tribal Court, said the statistic is deceiving because "it's the same kids. It's a small number, but they're counted all over again."

But, he said, "I think that's our biggest problem: alcohol. The base to everything wrong here is either alcohol or substance abuse."

The hard-core' group

Each year, new packs of students replace the former underagers who frequented Hill County's City and Justice courts on drinking-related charges.

Perszyk refers to them as the "hard-core" groups. One underager in her court accumulated 21 MIPs, but "13 or 15 is not a shock," she said. The youngest child ever to receive an MIP it occurred about a year ago was 9 years old.

Courts are struggling to keep up with the flow of tickets for underage drinking offenses. In fact, the city of Havre is searching for funding to hire a second court clerk, who would, among other duties, keep track of the throngs of underagers funneled through the system.

Within Havre, the number of MIPs had dropped after hitting 494 in 1996. But it broke the 400 mark again in 2001.

"We had tons before and we have tons now," Perszyk said.

One reason is that MIPs don't phase underagers, especially when parents pay their children's fines, said Havre senior Jamie Branden, 18.

Before he got a DUI in August, Cody Hanson, 19, had eight MIPs. On weekends, he and a friend would regularly grab two 18-packs of beer and go on long drives.

Getting caught drag-racing drunk north of Havre and getting the DUI changed all that. "If I would have got an MIP that night, I would have just blown it off and I would still be doing the same stuff," said Hanson, a 2001 Havre grad.

Consuming alcohol is not a behavior exclusive to those in the popular crowds at Havre, Box Elder and Rocky Boy high schools or Montana State University-Northern.

"It's pretty much everybody," Branden said. "There are a lot of popular kids that drink. There are a lot of nonpopular kids that drink."

In Box Elder, minors loiter outside of local bars and persuade older residents to buy alcohol for them, said Wade Colliflower, 20, a Box Elder resident.

The legal drinking age on the reservation is 18. However, Judge Belgarde and Police Chief Arthur Windy Boy say those caught drinking between age 18 and 21 are charged with related offenses like public intoxication or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The underage drinkers "think it's cool to be an alcoholic," Rocky Boy mother Dorene Tendoy said. "If you aren't, you're going against the flow."

Though Brown's drinking behavior as an underager exceeded that of many of his peers, he was not alone.

"I think a lot of people in high school are alcoholics and they don't want to face it," said Toldness, who compiled eight MIPs in high school. "I totally was."

Teen drinking routines

They bolted out of the house, some wearing socks and the rest in their bare feet. Havre police officers had crashed a party full of underagers most of them Havre students or recent graduates.

It was the largest underage party bust in the last year. Fifty-one underagers were cited, but about 20 other partiers fled the scene.

A boy from the junior class hosted the Feb. 22 gathering, a birthday party for one of his friends. They had already returned one empty keg and were working on a second when the police arrived at 10:55 p.m.

Though that party was halted, Hill County law enforcement's strict enforcement of underage drinking laws appears to have made many underage drinkers more sophisticated in their law-breaking.

Almost half of Havre High School's 649 students use police scanners to keep tabs on the whereabouts of law enforcement, said Jimmy Albertson, a 17-year-old junior.

"They carry them around like they're cell phones," Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said.

If a group of friends in town are "cruising" a coveted pastime for underagers and hear deputies preparing to break up a party in 10,000-acre Beaver Creek Park, Albertson said, they will call someone at the party via cell phone or CB radio and warn them to disperse.

Formerly notorious party spots in the Bear Paw Mountains and at Fresno Reservoir and the South Havre softball complex are rarely used now by high-schoolers, but a relatively new spot has popped up north of Havre.

Students nicknamed the hilly terrain "Top of the World" because of the ideal vantage point it offers illegal drinkers.

"If you're on top of that hill, you can see anything coming at you," Albertson said.

Outdoor drinking hideouts are utilized in the warmer seasons, while underagers tend to hibernate in houses or vehicles in the winter.

About a dozen times each summer, Shane Reno of the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks catches underagers with alcohol on float trips in canoes or rafts on the Missouri or Milk rivers.

Experienced high school partiers keep house gatherings small, between 10 and 20 people, Branden said. And underagers attempt to throw authorities off their scent by frequently moving their parked cars, or by leaving the party for a while before returning.

When some kids turn 18, they cross the border to Canada, where they can drink legally. Medicine Hat, a 51,249-population city about two hours north of Havre, is a popular getaway.

Underage traffic at the Wildhorse and Willow Creek ports of entry into Canada is heaviest during Christmas and spring breaks and the week before school starts, said Cherise Miles, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs Service.

Every weekend, high school kids pile into vehicles some of which contain alcohol and cruise. The usual route is an L-shaped, 2.5-mile loop between the Fifth Avenue Christian Church in the 2000 block of Fifth Avenue, and the Pizza Hut in the 300 block of First Street West.

"Their bar is usually a vehicle or somebody's house," said Carol Richard, director of Hill County's TLC Recovery Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment and prevention program. "Kids will tell you they drive around because they have no place to drink."

Cruising involves frequent stops in the parking lots of both destinations, as well as the parking lot next to Sixth Avenue Memorial Field, called "Pot Lot." Drivers sometimes burn a full tank of gas in one night.

On Rocky Boy, underage drinkers keep their inner circles small. "You pretty much stay in packs," Colliflower said.

House parties are frequent, such as when parents with tribal jobs go "on travel," local vernacular for business trips. Colliflower said some kids drink at home while their parents are socializing at local bars; others simply drink with their parents.

"I know parents that party with their kids," said Joyce Denny, a former employee of the Rocky Boy Police Department.

On special occasions or "whenever somebody's got a lot of money," teens will get a hotel room in Havre for a night and party, Colliflower said.

Student athletes who drink sometimes coordinate their drinking schedule around their sport seasons.

Students who participate in extracurricular activities must sign an activity participation agreement, which outlines their punishments if they are caught drinking or committing other violations.

If Havre students are found to be in possession of alcohol or at an event where alcohol is being served, they are suspended from participating in all school activities for two weeks, or 10 school days, and are ineligible for the rest of the year if a second offense occurs. Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools have similar policies.

But if a student is between sports or activities, they are not bound by the contract.

"As soon as their season ends, they're going out and involving themselves in an activity that I wish they wouldn't," Havre athletics director Dennis Murphy said.

Only three of Havre's 27 activity agreement violations last school year were drinking-related, he said. There were no alcohol-related suspensions at either Rocky Boy or Box Elder last year.

Havre is an island'

Spring Hagen says she has underage friends who spend more money in a year on alcohol than the university's $2,994 annual in-state tuition.

"I drink way more here than I do back home, because there's so much more to do back home," said Hagen, a sophomore biology major from Columbia Falls. "Here you drink and you drink a lot."

One set of friends needed only three months to wallpaper their living room walls with beer logos ripped off cardboard boxes. "And they have extra ones piled in the spare room," Hagen said.

MSU-N is a "suitcase college"; many of the 1,539 students travel home on weekends. Forty-six percent of the student population are older, nontraditional students, many with spouses or children.

The young students who stick around on weekends are often bonded by drinking.

"To have fun in Havre, we party," Hagen, 19, said. "That's when I've seen the biggest groups of people in Havre not for school events."

Havre's isolation, underagers say, contributes to their drinking. Havre, the eighth-largest city in Montana, is 110 miles from a larger city, Great Falls.

"Havre is an island," Hagen said. "There are no larger towns to escape to."

Fake IDs

Many underage drinkers use fake IDs to get served; others rely on the lack of bouncers to get into certain bars and then use their friends to buy them drinks.

"Half the people that go out here aren't 21," Hagen said. "Everybody has a fake ID."

Underagers willing to risk getting caught have a plethora of options in Hill County, which has 53 businesses with alcohol licenses, almost double the number of churches and schools combined. The county seat, Havre, has 43 businesses with licenses.

Establishments that sell alcohol to minors can face civil penalties from the state Department of Revenue. Last year, 110 civil penalties were issued statewide, said Jason Wood, supervisor of DOR's liquor-licensing unit.

In March 1992, Hill County law enforcement conducted a sting to determine which locations were selling to minors. Twenty-five licensed establishments were caught selling alcoholic beverages to underagers. Most of them paid a $200 fine or received a five-day suspension of their license.

"We escaped," said Jupe Compton, owner of the Palace Bar, one of three bars not cited.

Mike Shortell, Havre police chief from 1987 to 2000, said, "I was really surprised. I didn't think it was that rampant or it was that easy."

Hill County did not conduct another sting for nine years.

"There was talk of doing other ones, but other things came up and it just didn't happen," Shortell said.

This summer, in a much more business-friendly sting than 1992, only three Hill County establishments were caught selling to minors. All the establishments were notified of the operation in advance, and only 23 of them were randomly selected for inspection.

"We like the teamwork approach," said Robin Morris, executive director of the HELP Committee, which helped organize the operation.

Unlike more populated areas, there are no under-21 dance clubs in Havre, making bars the only option for the underage crowd weary of house parties.

During the week, bars in Havre generally don't use bouncers to check IDs. On weekends, only a few bars regularly employ bouncers, so the first obstacle gaining entry is not an issue.

Because most bars are equipped with gambling machines, which 18-year-olds can legally play, most Hill County establishments have rules about when underagers can be present. Several of the bars in Havre post signs saying underagers cannot be in the bar after 9 p.m.

Without a doorman for crowd control, teens can find refuge and an endless supply of drinks by blending into large groups.

"The biggest problem I see is when a mob comes in all at once," said Compton, president of the Hill County Tavern Association. "It's really hard for the bartender to make sure a drink doesn't get handed back."

Kim Kirby, manager of the Gallery Lounge who also worked as a doorman for a decade, said: "They're going to (hide) someplace where somebody's going to feed them a drink."

On a crowded night in a bouncerless bar, bartenders can get vertigo trying to watch the incoming crowd if their pub has two doors of entry.

"Some of these places that have two doors have a difficult time controlling their crowds," Kirby said.

Bar owners and managers are reluctant to talk about which establishments are notorious for selling to underagers, but there are bars that apply the look-the-other-way method.

"I would say that most of the bars are responsible when it comes to serving underage people most of them," Kirby said with emphasis on the last phrase. "But they can only be as responsible as their help."

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. See related stories under "local headlines".

 

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