“Any time these kids are off from school,” said Nick DeLuca, youth detective for the Rockville Centre Police Department, “days when they don’t have to be up early in the morning, it’s an opportunity for them to drink.”
DeLuca prepared for a stretch of nine such days — the school district’s winter break, which ended on Jan. 2 — by publicizing some of his efforts on Facebook.
On Halloween weekend, DeLuca “checked in” — a Facebook feature that lets users mark their geographic locations — to “the bridge,” an infamous overpass leading to Hempstead Lake State Park, where underage drinkers congregate. The post read, “We are ready for the Halloween party at the bridge! If you come, get ready to receive your trespassing in the park after dark and underage drinking tickets!”
A local mother, who asked not to be named, told the Herald that she learned about the bridge when her oldest son was in elementary school. “I had heard parents with older kids talk about it, and parents who had grown up in the village knew that it was where kids go to drink,” she said.
“I never wanted my kids to hang out there,” she continued, adding that she currently had a 15-year-old at South Side High School. “I’m grateful that my kids always had another place to go.”
On the weekend of Thanksgiving break, DeLuca “checked in” at a Baldwin beverage distributor, which he noted is an establishment known to both teens and the police for selling alcohol to minors.
On the post, he commented, “Already busted a few and it’s not even 8:30!” He later told the Herald that those caught were underage teens attempting to buy adult beverages with fraudulent identification.
DeLuca said that his Facebook posts are meant to send a message in the hope of preventing underage would-be drinkers from putting themselves in positions that might get them in trouble. “The last thing I want to be doing is arresting a kid for purchasing alcohol underage,” he said.
DeLuca’s efforts are part of a larger effort by the village to curb underage drinking. He noted that the police department was in contact with Village Justice William Croutier Jr., who presides over cases involving minors and alcohol.
“We don’t want the bad decisions these kids make now to keep them from getting a job or getting into college down the line,” Croutier said, adding that it was nonetheless important that they learn a lesson.
Croutier said he normally requires underage alcohol offenders to do community service, and purges the offenders’ criminal record when the teen writes him a letter explaining the value of the experience.
He said that this approach works well, and that even though he rarely sees the same offender twice, he runs into another problem. “Every so often, I’ll get a letter that was pretty clearly written by the parent, not the kid.”
In those cases, he said, he reiterates the consequences of the charges remaining on their child’s record, and gives them a second chance to submit a letter.
The Rockville Centre Youth Council has also played a role in curbing underage drinking. It hosts social gatherings, awareness-raising activities and volunteer events that, according to Co-chairwoman Beth Hammerman, give young adults safe, healthy and productive alternatives to drinking.
At the group’s meeting at the Recreation Center last month, it hosted a talk by South Side High School alumnus Eric Braun about his own struggles with addiction and the challenges of his recovery.
“Ah, the bridge,” Braun said, not wistfully, but sarcastically, with a tinge of regret. “I remember the bridge.”
He talked about how his escalating drug use — smoking marijuana before school and at Fireman’s Field between classes, drinking and smoking behind the 7-Eleven on Merrick Road and at the bridge — always felt like normal teen behavior. “It wasn’t normal,” he said.
After the talk, high schoolers reflected on the challenges of avoiding alcohol, noting suburban boredom and a lack of sober activities for their age group. Andrea Connolly, the meeting’s adult facilitator, reminded them of a number of recent and upcoming Youth Council events.
One girl, who did not identify herself, said that though she enjoyed the club’s activities, they are still missing a crucial element: freedom from adults.
Several teens described feeling “watched” or “judged” by grown-ups, adding that viable social spots are food establishments that chase them away unless they purchase something.
Connolly mentioned that the Spare Mug — a coffeehouse that is part of Maple Lanes bowling alley — could solve those problems. John LaSpina and his son Joe, longtime Rockville Centre residents who own and operate Maple Lanes, partnered with the Youth Council to create a space where members of the community, teens included, could gather.
“There’s such a lack of socialization right now,” John said, adding that he hopes a place such as the bowling alley and Spare Mug can change that. “Everyone is so into being an individual that they forget there’s a society of people to interact and communicate with.”