Sunday, May 21, 2000

Ohio's Amish seek help for underage drinking

By Amy Beth Graves
The Associated Press

        MIDDLEFIELD — It's Saturday night, party night. Dozens of teens are gathered in a town parking lot, eating fast food and joking around. Some take off when they find out the site of the party where beer will be flowing freely all night.

        But it's not the sound of squealing tires that fills the town square. It's the clip-clop sound of horses as they pull black buggies with Amish teens behind the reins.

        The Amish in this northeast Ohio city have long struggled to curb underage drinking in their community. The problem has been serious enough that despite their tradition of avoiding the outside world, Amish leaders reached out to police and judges in recent years for help breaking up drinking parties and doling out tough sentences to offenders.

        While the number of alcohol-related arrests now appears to be down, authorities say the problem remains in this farming and industrial area in Geauga County, about 30 miles east of Cleveland. The county is home to more than 6,000 Amish and is one of the nation's largest Amish settlements.

        “It's a shame. Some think this is their way of having fun by drinking alcohol. They're not taught that. It's a small minority — just about 1 percent. But even if it's only one person, it's bad,” said a 54-year-old Middlefield Amish leader who asked that his name not be used because of Amish taboos against attracting attention.

        The Amish are a Christian sect whose members live a simple lifestyle and shun modern conven- iences such as cars and electricity.

        However, someone born into an Amish family is not automatically a member of the church. They decide in their late teens and early 20s whether to join.

        It's just before that crucial decision that young people sometimes “sow their wild oats” because the partying stops as soon as they join the church, said Middlefield police Chief David Easthon.

        But Amish drinking is not overlooked in local courts.

        Acting Chardon Municipal Judge David Fuhry chastised Aaron Miller, 18, and Daniel Yoder, 19, for having beer in a buggy that was filled with minors as he gave them a suspended 30-day jail sentence for possession of alcohol last week.

        “You guys are not allowed to touch beer or alcohol,” Judge Fuhry said. “You should run from it — it gives you nothing but trouble.”

        Authorities are quick to note that drinking among Amish youths is not as widespread as it is with the rest of the teen-age population.

        Chardon Municipal Judge Craig Albert said the dozens of Amish alcohol-related cases he deals with yearly are a small portion of his caseload.

        Of the 600 driving-under-the-influence cases, only six to eight are caused by the Amish. He also said very few Amish are repeat offenders — about 10 over the past four years.

        But it was such a case that rocked the Amish community four years ago, Judge Albert said. He sentenced three Amish teens to 60 days in jail for violating the terms of their probation for underage drinking convictions.

        “After 30 days, the Amish community was begging and complaining. They wanted the kids to go to church, and I let them out. It was a real wake-up call,” said Judge Albert, who was then asked by Amish leaders for help.

        Judge Albert and Geauga County Sheriff George Simmons gave a series of speeches to about 1,600 Amish adults and teens on drinking's dangers and penalties. The speeches featured an Amish man from Wooster who was an alcoholic.

        After the talks, the number of arrests trailed off until last summer, said John Hiscox, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

        The drinking takes place during the warm months at bonfire parties that can attract up to 200 youths. Police often rely on tips to find the parties because most are hidden on rural, private farms.

        Sheriff's deputies also have been following buggies whenever they see a large number being driven by teens on the weekend. Sometimes the Amish youths even show authorities the beer in the buggy, Mr. Hiscox said.

        “They don't seem to think they're doing anything wrong. They'll bring the cases of beer out in the open as they unload them,” he said.

        In the past, stores often would let Amish buy alcohol without showing any identification because they don't have driver's licenses, Mr. Easthon said. Now stores and the town's two bars are supposed to ask for a state identification card for any Amish person who looks underage, he said.

        Linda Myers has been trying to steer Amish teens away from alcohol through Turning Point, an alcohol awareness class designed for the Amish. Geauga County Juvenile Court Judge Charles Henry orders about 50 Amish youngsters every year to take the class, Ms. Myers said.


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