Parents plead not guilty after teen party

Say they were unaware alcohol being consumed

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / April 28, 2010

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LAWRENCE — Two North Andover parents are facing more than two years in jail and fines for allegedly hosting an underage drinking party Friday for their daughter and as many as 40 of her friends, a gathering that ended when police were called to the neighborhood and observed a teen staggering on the lawn and intoxicated youths crowded into the basement.

Ronald and Susan Smits, both 49, were arraigned yesterday morning in Lawrence District Court with violating the state’s Social Host Responsibility Law, which stipulates that anyone who owns or controls a property can be charged if a minor is drinking there, even if the person does not provide the alcohol.

The Smits pleaded not guilty and left the courthouse without commenting, but their lawyer, Robert Solomon, said they were unaware that alcohol was being consumed during the party and that the liquor was probably smuggled into the basement through a side door. The Smits were upstairs during the party.

The Smits are scheduled for a preliminary hearing on June 14.

Neighbor Tanya Gould, a longtime friend of the Smits who picked them up from the North Andover police station following their arrests, said that they were simply trying to provide a safe atmosphere for their 18-year-old daughter and her friends and that alcohol consumption by teens is nothing new. Another neighbor, Paula Grant, defended the Smits, saying they would never provide alcohol to minors.

Police in North Andover have broken up three underage drinking parties in the past month. At two of the parties, parents were present. With the prom season around the corner, local authorities are stepping up their efforts to combat teen drinking.

The social host law was enacted in 2000, four years after the death of Gregory Smith, 18, of Marshfield. He left a graduation party in Cohasset, slammed his car into a telephone pole, and died. His blood alcohol level was .19, more than twice the legal limit. Cohasset businessman John Lennon, who hosted that party, was acquitted of providing alcohol to a minor.

According to statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 5,000 youths under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking, including about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

An annual survey indicated that about three out of four high school seniors, two out of three sophomores, and two out of five eighth-graders have consumed alcohol.

The institute also found that drinking at an early age puts a person at risk of developing alcohol dependency in adulthood.

Ralph Hingson, director of the institute’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, said in a telephone interview yesterday: “The notion that providing alcohol at home creates a safe drinking environment is not true. It behooves parents to try to do everything they can to delay the onset of drinking for young people.

“Study after study has shown that the earlier a person drinks, the more likely they will develop a dependency. Some parents say, ‘Well, if only we can teach our children to drink like they do in Europe, they don’t have a problem over there.’ But a greater proportion of 15- to 16-year-olds drink to intoxication over there than in the US, and the morbidity rate linked to alcohol consumption is higher in Europe than anywhere in the world.’’

Richard Campbell, a lawyer who often visits schools on the North Shore with Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett to talk about the dangers of alcohol consumption, said in a telephone interview, “Parents need to understand that when they allow a youth in their dominion to consume alcohol, they are opening themselves up to wide liability.’’ He said some parents have been sued for millions of dollars for supplying alcohol to teenagers who are later involved in drunken driving crashes.

Blodgett said that he and Campbell have conducted about 20 presentations in Essex County “to give the facts and to debunk some myths that still continue to fly around.’’

“I know that some people are defiant about the law,’’ he said, “and I say to them, ‘Look, if you have a problem, talk with your legislator.’ ’’

Blodgett said that since he became district attorney, there have been scores of cases involving allegations of sexual assault at underage drinking parties.

“You simply can’t control a party when underage kids are drinking heavily,’’ he said. “They drink as fast as they can to get drunk. They’re not having one or two beers and sitting back and chatting about the Red Sox. “

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