On Saturday night – party night – dozens of teens are gathered in a town parking lot, eating fast food and joking around. Many leave when they learn about a party where beer will be flowing all night.
Some leave in their black horse-drawn buggies.
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 have reached out to police and judges in recent years for help breaking up drinking parties and doling out tough sentences to offenders.
“Some Amish families, while they don’t condone it, they overlook it because they want the kids to get this out of their system,” said Middlefield police Chief David Easthon.
The number of alcohol-related arrests appears to be down, but authorities say it remains a problem in this farming and industrial area 30 miles east of Cleveland. Geauga County is home to more than 6,000 Amish – one of the nation’s largest settlements.
The Amish live a simple lifestyle and shun modern conveniences such as cars, telephones and electricity. Someone born into an Amish family is not automatically a member: A person decides in his or her 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, Easthon said.
Chardon Municipal Judge Craig Albert said it was after he sentenced three Amish teens to 60 days in jail for violating the terms of their probation for underage drinking convictions that Amish leaders asked him for help.
“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 wakeup call,” the judge said.
He and the county sheriff 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 who was an alcoholic. After the talks, the number of arrests trailed off until last summer, according to the sheriff’s office.
Authorities are quick to note that drinking among Amish youth is not as widespread as it is in the rest of the teenage population.
Albert said the dozens of Amish alcohol-related cases he deals with yearly are a small portion of his caseload. Very few Amish are repeat offenders, the judge said.
The drinking usually 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.
“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,” said sheriff’s spokesman John Hiscox.
The problem gained attention last September when a 17-year-old Amish boy passed out in the front seat of his buggy, and his horse trotted home on its own through dangerous intersections. Police weren’t able to rouse the teen by blaring their sirens and horns.
After a two-mile, low-speed chase, the buggy hit a police cruiser and overturned, ejecting the youth. His injuries were minor, but the teen was arrested. So was his 21-year-old Amish buddy who bought him the 12-pack of beer for a party.
“This was a serious thing, but people perceived it as being funny but it’s not funny,” Easthon said. “The horse doesn’t know when to stop for signs. It was a recipe for disaster.”
Officers have been working at cutting off Amish teens’ access to alcohol.
In the past, stores often would let Amish buy alcohol without showing any identification because they don’t have driver’s licenses, 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.
And officials are keeping an eye out for taxi drivers buying large quantities of alcohol because they have been known to sell it to Amish youths for a profit.
Linda Myers has been trying to steer Amish teens away from alcohol through Turning Point, an alcohol awareness class. Juvenile Court Judge Charles Henry orders about 50 Amish youngsters every year to take the class, Myers said.
Most of the county’s 39 Amish schools also have Drug Abuse Resistance Education courses. The DARE program teaches students the dangers of drugs and alcohol and how to resist peer pressure.