‘There’s some bad mojo going on?’

'There's some bad mojo going on?'
"We're in a rut. There's some bad mojo going on."

That's how Dallas Schnack, Clay County Deputy Sheriff and resource officer for the Vermillion and Wakonda school districts, describes the rash of drinking and driving accidents that have occurred in eastern South Dakota in recent weeks.

The good news is that no minors have been involved in a serious or fatal auto accident in Clay County this year.


The bad news? A Sioux Falls teenager was killed April 15 near Lennox.

A 17-year-old Colman teenager died in an vehicle accident May 6 in Moody County. Two other teens were seriously injured.

A teenage driver near White River died in an accident on May 15. He had just graduated from White River High School the day before.

All three of these fatalities have one thing in common. Each of the three young people who died had been drinking.

"We have graduation parties, the end of the school year means you might not see friends for a while, some of your friends are going off to college, and the onset of spring is about rebirth, and people want to be social," Schnack said.

Unfortunately, more and more young people are choosing to use alcohol as a means of being social.

"We have to identify our problem," Schnack said. "Our problem is kids are dying. Why are they dying? Alcohol is a factor. (Not using) seat belts is a factor. Poor decisions are a factor."

Identify solutions

The best way to tackle the problem, the deputy said, is to identify solutions that can be put into effect immediately.

"Put a seat belt on somebody, even if they are a drunk driver, and they're more than five times likely to survive a car accident," Schnack said. "Now, seat belts don't save everybody. But the stats show you are more likely to survive when you use a seat belt."

Law enforcement also must decide whether to go after underage drinking, or underage drinking and driving. The latter is what currently killing kids in South Dakota.

"How do you convince kids that they are not suppose to drink and drive?" Schnack asked.

Telling young people that they need a sober driver enables other kids to go ahead and drink. "And kids want to be social; even kids who don't want to drink want to be social," he said. "Designated drivers are a good thing, but yet it doesn't solve the whole problem. Just because you use a designated driver one night doesn't mean you're going to have somebody there the next night to help you out."

The addictive influence of alcohol is beginning to affect a growing, and increasingly younger, group of young people.

"The stats show that kids are starting when they are 12 or 13," Schnack said, "and girls are the fastest rising group of drinkers. By the time we talk to them, when they are juniors and seniors, those patterns have been started."

Project: Reinforcement

Schnack hopes to give parents a way to become more involved in the community's efforts to curb underage drinking through a new program, yet to be implemented, called Project: Re-Enforcement or P.R.E.

The program was developed by Schnack, partnering with Captain Chad Passick of the Vermillion Police Department and Vermillion School District's guidance staff. P.R.E., Schnack said, requires parent and community initiated referrals to help prevent future underage drinking.

Schnack first described how the plan would work last March during a community meeting held to address the problems of underage drinking.

A parent suspicious that their child has been drinking may call the sheriff's office, and a project member will arrive at the requested location and provide assistance to the parent.�

An easy to use Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) will be provided for the parent to use. The project member does not have to be present, nor does the parent have to disclose the results of the test.� The project member's goal is to support the parent. No arrest will be made; the parent has control of the outcome.�

Follow-up

A project member will follow-up with the parent within 48 hours to ensure the parent is satisfied with the outcome. Also, a school guidance counselor will follow-up with the student. All information between the guidance counselor and student is confidential, and will not be passed on to the other project members

Community members who suspect, for example, that underage drinking is occurring in their neighborhood may also take advantage of P.R.E., which will research for past events at the suspected location, then make contact with the home owner with an anonymous concern.

A referral from a community member can help someone avoid the liability that may come from an underage drinking party taking place at their house.

Certain circumstances may cause a referral to be turned down, such as:

1) the child being referred was involved in other criminal activity, e.g. vandalism, assault, theft, or any crime against persons.

2) the child is on probation.

3) the child or house is currently under investigation by local law enforcement for illegal activity.

4) the child is a habitual offender (this is at the discretion of the project members).

5) there is a liability to the safety and well being of others, e.g. a car accident.

Reactive response

Schnack said law enforcement typically has taken a reactive approach in dealing with underage drinking.

"We get the accident, we're arresting DUIs, we're picking up people for open container, we're trying to find the kids that are underage drinking. That's how we are patrolling."

The deputy said this approach isn't enough, however.

"What can we do to help keep kids who are drinking from doing it, but also reward the kids who aren't drinking and keep them from drinking?" he asked.

Difficult task

This task is made difficult at times and often the person complaining the most is not the underage drinker but his or her parents.

"Whenever we bust an underage party � we find a parent hosting a party getting other parents' kids drunk � the the outrage is directed against us," said Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, "or a parent who may have reported the party."

Parents who host parties for young people are another part of the challenge facing law enforcement.

"They are enabling the young people, and teaching them a lesson that this is acceptable as long as the cops don't find out," Howe said. "So the kids are learning the wrong thing, and you aren't keeping them safe. You're endangering them. And you're hindering the kids' development as a responsible adult by teaching them to be irresponsible."

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