It’s your worst nightmare come to fruition. Your son’s on the football team and the season is over. It was a good season and he wants to celebrate with the team (or it’s graduation, or prom, or his sixteenth birthday, or...fill in the blank; the story is always the same). Reluctantly, you agree to have a party at your house.
You try to keep things under control. You’re not serving alcohol - you’d never do that!. But kids are kids and alcohol has made it into the party. Suddenly, the police are at the door. Turns out a neighbor has called to complain. Next thing you know, you’re handcuffed and heading off to jail.
Sounds like a bad TV movie, doesn’t it?
But as we know, truth is often stranger than fiction. The scenario above is exactly what happened to Stanford Professor and Menlo Park resident, Bill Burnett over this past Thanksgiving weekend.
When I first read the headlines, I jumped to the conclusion Professor Burnett was one of those dads who had no boundaries. You know the type: wants to be the “cool” dad and so doesn’t really think the laws apply to him.
But as the story has revealed itself, the facts are, of course, more complex.
Apparently, Professor Burnett had done everything he believed he could to keep the teenagers from getting out of control. He told the neighbors there would be a party just so they knew he knew what was going on. He and his wife (who'd just had major back surgery) were there to “keep an eye on things.” (Rumor has it he was baking chocolate chips cookies to give to the kids when the police pounded on his front door). He did everything right, and still it all fell apart.
The result? A well-intentioned father is now , forty counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor to be exact. He faces up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500 per child; that’s a big toll for just trying to celebrate his youngest child’s last high school football game.
It’s a “there but for the grace of God” story for me. When my oldest turned sixteen, I decided to throw him a surprise birthday party. Working with two of his good friends, we planned the event. They developed the guest list (They wanted 100, I agreed to 50) and sent out the invitations. I hired a DJ, bought a cake, and made sure two very large Stanford football players stood outside as bouncers the entire night.
It was a huge success. My son was surprised and no one got out of hand. In fact, I was so proud of myself I went around bragging for days. “You can have a party without drinking,” I assured my friends.
Uh huh. Come to find out, some of the kids had “pre-gamed” before they arrived (for those not in the know, “pre-gaming” is where kids drink copious amounts of alcohol as quickly as possible before they go into an event). Other kids brought backpacks filled with bottles of vodka and cans of beer. When they saw the bouncers, they left the backpacks in the bushes along our house. The bouncers told them no “in and out” privileges, so the kids went home and came back with small flasks hidden in their pants.
Throughout the night of the event, I monitored the kids by bringing food, replenishing soft drinks, checking on the DJ, even taking pictures. I never saw anyone drunk, nor did I see any drinking on my premises. And yet, if one of my neighbors had complained and the police arrived, I could well have been handcuffed and taken to jail just like Professor Burnett.
Which leaves me with the question, what’s a “good” parent to do? If we want to celebrate these special events in our teenaged children’s lives, we place ourselves at risk. So is the answer, no parties? Doesn’t that place our children at greater risk? Let’s face it, as much as we might like to ignore or deny it, our kids are going to find a way to party.
I turned to some friends to get their thoughts on the issue. My neighbor Susan said, “Of course we can not condone drinking, but when we refuse to give them a place to gather together, it forces teenagers out into cars and onto the streets.” She believes the risk to children is of the gravest concern. She has even helped friends host parties for their teenagers by serving as back-up for the parents to ensure things don't get out of control.
Others agreed with the police. “The law’s the law,” my neighbor Jean said. “Teenagers shouldn’t drink because it’s illegal. Adults who host parties have to understand they are creating an atmosphere where teenagers could potentially be drinking. Why risk it?”
“We can have any opinion we want,” my wise friend Felice said. “But as a parent, you don’t have a lot of options. If minors are drinking in your home, whether you have served them or not, you are potentially breaking the law.”
We all agreed one thing: the law is flawed. If my son, who will turn 18 next month, is old enough to fight for the rights and privileges of this country, and is considered intelligent and informed enough to vote, how then could he possibly not be old enough to sip the occasional beer?
Stanford Law Professor, Richard Banks explained, “The question comes down to whether the law is out of step with people’s social practices. In most cases, law enforcement agrees not to enforce these laws. But when they do, the parent then is at risk. It puts parents in a tight spot. They have a legal command that says they can’t recognize the reality of what children are doing.”
“It’s a no-win situation,” he acknowledged.
We can debate the myriad issues surrounding teenage drinking, but I’m not sure that gets at the heart of the problem here. As I pondered the “right” and “wrong” of Professor Burnett’s situation, particularly as it related to my own experience, I realized there was one significant difference between us; none of my neighbors called the police.
If the neighbor who called the police instead had taken the time to call Professor Burnett this situation might have been a chance to build community rather than tear it down. We don’t yet know the details of what transpired that night at the Burnett household. It may have been that Professor Burnett was not aware of the unruly kids. A single phone call might have given him the information he needed to get things under control.
Or, perhaps the neighbor could have helped the professor and his wife get the rowdy kids home. Or, maybe together the neighbor and the professor could have called and asked the police for help. Sometimes the men in blue are exactly what we need.
Confronting our neighbors can be difficult. It requires courage and a willingness to get involved. Palo Alto School Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said, “We seem to have forgotten we are part of a community. Instead we are so worried about our own little worlds. People are not looking beyond themselves.”
She believes “if you know your neighbors, if you have a relationship, you’re more likely to reach out. If you don’t, you call the police.”
In a community such as ours that is grappling with how to handle teenage stress, refusing our children a chance to celebrate important and even not so important milestones isn’t the answer.
I believe one of the best things we can do for our teenagers is to get to know our neighbors. That way, when we need help or need to make that awkward phone call, we feel connected enough to do so.
Update: Bill Burnett for an exclusive interview following his arrest.