Tragedy solemn reminder to parental party hosts
LENOX -- Questions continue to surround the circumstances leading to the recent tragedy that claimed the life of a local high school student.
Law enforcement authorities, state legislators and school administrators stress that the death of Remy Kirshner, 17, the passenger in the vehicle driven by Philip K. Baruch, Jr., 18 -- both students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School -- demonstrates the responsibility of parents who host house parties for teens.
Baruch faces a Southern Berkshire District Court summons on charges of motor vehicle homicide, intoxication above the legal threshold and speeding after the BMW he was driving smashed into a tree on Greylock Street in Lee at 12:40 a.m. on Dec. 30.
The Lee Police Department, with cooperation from Lenox police, is still piecing together the time line of the two teenagers' whereabouts prior to the tragedy, Police Chief Joseph Buffis said on Monday.
State law bars an adult from procuring or furnishing alcohol to people under 21 on property owned or controlled by the adult. Upon conviction, a violator could face up to a year in jail and/or a fine up to $2,000.
"The one message I try to bring to teenagers about underage drinking is about their safety," said Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless. "It's not about getting them in trouble."
Capeless cited medical studies on the long-term health impact of drinking on young people -- "when you add that to the impulsiveness you often find with teenagers, it's often a lethal combination."
It's not strictly a legal matter, Capeless said. "It's a medical and public safety matter and we want kids to understand that. We want them to have a future."
The DA spoke out forcefully against the notion by some parents "that it's the right thing to host a party and keep the drinking there. That's the wrong message. The best choice is not to drink anywhere. If you don't teach young people that, they're not going to learn it."
Capeless acknowledged that "we often find it's impossible to do anything legally about these situations except when teenagers step forward."
He said it's "not acceptable behavior" for teens to protect others by withholding information. "Who are they protecting?" Capeless asked. "Not them."
He noted that "parents have the opportunity to speak to their teenagers every day, to reinforce the message. It's not about getting them in trouble, but keeping them safe and healthy."
According to Capeless, young drivers are often taken aback when they learn that breaking the laws on drinking can lead to the loss of their license.
And for parents who host parties that include drinking, he cited the law that providing alcohol to youngsters under 17 can trigger charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Parents also face potential civil liability for "injuries or worse that may result from alcohol consumed by underage drinkers at their home, whether you [the parents] are there or not."
"You're putting your whole family's future in jeopardy," Capeless warned parents. "You could lose your house."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, recommended "greater collaboration between schools and law enforcement. We're blessed to live in small towns where everybody knows your name, but sometimes that can be a curse."
The "social host" law, as it's commonly known, depends on cooperation from the public, according to Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien.
Just last Friday, he pointed out, the department's school resource officer, William Colvin, relayed information to the chief about a house party planned for this past Saturday night. The information was provided to Colvin by an adult, O'Brien said.
"We've used the social host law a few times here," O'Brien noted. "We can take calls if somebody knows of a party about to happen, and we can prevent it from happening."
When Colvin developed information about the pending party this past week, he advised the chief.
"I contacted the parents and they assured me it was not going to happen," O'Brien said.
Colvin told The Eagle that "there are always certain students who have been honest and cooperative about developing information about criminal activity. We try to stay on top of what the youth in town are up to."
According to Pignatelli, whose daughter Anha is a senior at Lenox High, "parents have to ask their children where they are going, who they're going with and when they're coming home."
"Kids make mistakes, we're not going to hold a first offense against them," the state lawmaker said. "I'm all for giving kids a chance, but police have to do something in cases of chronic partying and egregious events."
Pignatelli stressed that "I don't think we should condone the attitude that if you stay home, you can have a beer. That would send the wrong message to parents. There should be serious consequences for buying alcohol for underage kids, especially in light of what happened. Two families' lives have been changed forever because someone over 21 supplied alcohol."
Berkshire Eagle staff reporter Dick Lindsay contributed to this report.
To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-6247.
The state law on hosting parties
"Whoever makes a sale or delivery of any alcoholic beverage or alcohol to any person under 21 years of age, either for his own use or for the use of his parent or any other person, or whoever delivers or procures any such beverages or alcohol to or for use by a person who he knows or has reason to believe is under 21 years of age or whoever furnishes any alcoholic beverage or alcohol for a person under 21 years of age shall be punished by a fine of not more than $2,000 or by imprisonment for not more than one year or both. The word ‘furnish' shall mean to knowingly or intentionally supply, give, or provide to or allow a person under 21 years of age -- except for the children and grandchildren of the person being charged -- to possess alcoholic beverages on premises or property owned or controlled by the person charged."
Source: Excerpted from Massachusetts General Laws, Section 138, Paragraph 34.
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