By Bill Vidonic Tribune-Review Published: Saturday, June 2, 2012, 7:00 p.m.
Susan E. Sanders-Watt made a decision that cost three teens their lives two years ago. "Don't give another person's child the chance to drink at your house," Sanders-Watt, 60, of Salem said last week. A judge in April sentenced her to one year of house arrest wearing an electronic monitoring device for her guilty plea to corruption of minors and reckless endangerment, for serving alcohol to at least 17 teens at a graduation party for her son.
As families prepare to host graduation parties throughout the region, adults should know they face criminal and civil liability if they serve alcohol to underage people or don't stop parties when they know alcohol is being served. The Westmoreland County car crash that resulted from beer drinking at the Sanders-Watt graduation party serves as a glaring example. Police said Sanders-Watt bought the beer for her son's party.
Michael Simpson, 19, Carly Kudray, 19, and Jordan Cobb, 19, died in a drunken-driving crash on June 26, 2010, as they drove from Sanders-Watt's home. Police said the trio, and crash survivor Chad Vandergrift, stayed at Sanders-Watt's home for only 30 minutes before leaving. "This has completely torn our family apart," said Mollie Cobb of Export, Jordan Cobb's mother. "It's completely ruined everything. When you bury your child, it's never good, but under these circumstances, it makes it even worse."
Debbie Kehoe of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Safe and Drug Free Children tries to teach parents not to be enablers for children. "The unfortunate thing is that a lot of parents just don't get it. Because of how hectic our lives are, parents tend to be more of a friend than a parent. You can understand that, but yet you have the responsibility as a parent to be a parent and give your children guidance," Kehoe said. Mike Rosenzweig, litigation manager and partner at the Downtown law firm of Edgar Snyder & Associates, said simply knowing that alcohol is being served to minors at your home, even though you haven't served it, can make someone legally responsible. Serving the alcohol can fall under the criminal statute of facilitating, serving or assisting a minor in drinking alcohol, and can create a civil liability. Criminal punishment can include jail time or thousands of dollars in fines. "It seems to be easily preventable," Rosenzweig said. "The bottom line is, no alcohol for minors. Period."
Kehoe said she was flabbergasted to see a televised report a couple of years ago about several families who rented a limousine for their prom-going, high school-aged children so that they could safely drink. "If you're picking and choosing laws to obey and abide by, you're sending really bad messages to your children," Kehoe said. Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said when he talks to parents about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, he tells them: "It is not acceptable for a parent to volunteer their home and take away car keys so that there can be a 'safe' drinking party. "Plain and simple, it is a crime for a parent to allow underage drinkers to consume on their property."
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck asked for jail time for Sanders-Watt, because he wanted to send a strong message to parents, although Judge John E. Blahovec said house arrest sent that message. Sanders-Watt faced a possible 45 years in prison. After the crash, Sanders-Watt said her son, whom she didn't name, swore off alcohol. "The decision I made, I have to live with it for the rest of my life," she said. "I did what thousands of other parents do. But it all boils down to I should have said no."
Here are some tips for avoiding problems with alcohol at a graduation party: * Keep an eye on minors to make sure they don't sneak any alcohol. Consider hiring a professional bartender who can screen underage drinkers or refuse drinks to minors and adults who appear intoxicated. *Offer nonalcoholic beverages, including coffee, and plenty of food. Switch to only coffee or soft drinks a couple hours before the party is scheduled to end. *Make sure party-goers have designated drivers. *Have your teenager call from a land phone so that Caller ID shows that they're where they should be. Set up a safe word a teenager can use so that if the party gets out of hand, the parent knows they need a ride home.
Source: The Pennsylvania Department of Insurance, Edgar Snyder & Associates, and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Safe and Drug Free Children.