A new social hosting policy approved last week by the River Forest village board represents months of research and discussion by law enforcement officers, local government officials, and concerned citizens, all of which translates into an important step forward in tackling the issue of underage drinking and drug use in the village.

The social hosting ordinance prohibits residents from hosting, condoning, or failing to take reasonable steps to prevent parties and gatherings that involve underage drinking or illicit drug use. The policy was the brainchild of Village Clerk Roma Colwell-Steinke, who brought the idea to the attention of police officials. It was prompted by her involvement in a citizen’s coalition that is working together to reduce teenage drinking and drug use in both River Forest and Oak Park.

“She is a very active participant in the citizens drive to bring awareness to drug and alcohol use by our youth,” said River Forest Sgt. Michael Thornley, who was also involved in helping to draft the social hosting ordinance, along with Steinke and Chief Gregory Weiss.

Thornley said the real concern began with an Illinois Youth Survey of several years ago that showed high levels of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use in the students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “It was disturbing,” he said. “Well above what anybody thought or wanted to acknowledge.”

But disturbing as it was, it sparked an effort to control those illegal behaviors in the community and keep kids on the right track. The social hosting ordinance, which holds parents accountable for allowing behavior that was once considered a “rite of passage,” also gives teenagers options for reporting underage drinking parties, to ensure that they themselves aren’t held accountable.

“I think this is in direct response to the discussions that the communities are having right now,” said Thornley. “This is a new and innovative way to attempt to attack the problem of youth consuming alcohol, youth using drugs.”

Thornley called it a piece of the larger puzzle that includes the closed campus discussion and the Oak Park Township’s Face It program, which targets high school and middle school students with substance abuse problems. “These are all pieces of an entire cultural change,” he said.

George Thompson, a member of the law review committee of the citizen’s coalition, endorsed the initiative to the River Forest trustees, and will do the same in Oak Park. But he said there’s already support within the Oak Park village government. “All along we’ve had terrific participation by about four officers from Oak Park,” he said.

Meanwhile, River Forest residents can rest assured that the new policy was designed to be helpful, not punitive. Children can call the police to report underage drinking activity without fear of reproof, and parents can give police the power to check on their homes and children to avoid liability for any underage drinking that occurs. “The most important thing about this ordinance is that it’s not a gotcha type of thing,” Thornley said.

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