HOWELL — Livingston County Prosecutor David Morse issued a stern message Tuesday to parents and adults who permit underage drinking, especially at prom and graduation parties — They're acting just like a drug dealer.
"Nobody views themselves as a pusher in something like that, but frankly that's exactly what's happening. You're supplying an illegal substance to somebody who shouldn't be having it," said Morse to a group of about 40 people gathered at The Opera House to kick-off the latest public awareness campaign to educate parents that included school officials from Brighton and Hartland.
Morse said the issue is a persistent problem, noting there were 10 prosecutions of parents who permitted underage drinking last year, but many more cases where there wasn't enough proof. Still more were never reported, he said. Hosting a party with underage drinking is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or $1,000 fine.
"The only way we're going to do this is to keep at it," he said, adding that substance abuse problems can lead to other criminal activity. "We have to keep that message out there. We have to provide the education and provide the enforcement."
Organizers plan to distribute signs, stickers and fliers throughout the county with the theme "Parents Who Host the Most Lose the Most" to remind parents of the law and their responsibilities, which includes calling police if minors bring alcohol to a party and refuse to leave.
In addition, organizers hope to bring back a billboard that was visible from eastbound I-96 near Chilson Road — a location donated by Brighton attorney Neal Nielsen. The campaign is part of a $1.2 million three-year federal grant to battle underage drinking and follows similar targeted campaigns in 2009 and 2010.
"Our hopes are to saturate the county with as many materials as we can," said Kris Nelson, who is overseeing the campaign's efforts in the Brighton area and also works at Hartland High School on substance abuse issues. "There's still some stuff up from two years ago."
John Conley, a member of the Brighton Board of Education, said he plans on sharing the information with the board and superintendent. He said a good first step for parents would be to at least make it known to other parents that they won't tolerate underage drinking when their child is around.
"Parents need to have those discussions," he said.
Jo DelVero, who worked with Hartland schools on substance abuse issues for more than 40 years until she retired in 2010, is heading up Hartland's campaign. Underage drinking has been more visible in the community, especially after multiple minor-in-possession violations during a home football game that generated headlines.
DelVero said she's planning a May meeting to start organizing a community forum in September that'll focus on teen alcohol and substance abuse issues.
"Alcohol is a gateway drug … but now so are pills," she said. "You'll have young kids who start out using pills for the same reasons that people don't see alcohol as so harmful because it's legal, kids don't necessarily see pills are harmful because they're legal. They are a prescription."
Central to the substance abuse solution, particularly underage drinking, is shifting what's culturally acceptable, says Karen Bergbower, coordinator of the Livingston Community Prevention Project, which oversees the grant money. She told the group they are on the front line of that battle.
"We're really going to encourage all of you to take a stand and to challenge the norms of what our community accepts," Bergbower said. "We want our norm to be: underage drinking is never safe, underage drinking is never acceptable, and underage drinking is illegal. If you provide alcohol to minors, that will not be tolerated."