What I'm advocating now is an amendment to the ordinance that makes teens and parents aware of a state law designed to save lives and prevent injury.
Here are the comments I made to the Ridgewood Village Council at their work session last night:
In October 2009, the State of New Jersey signed into law 911: Lifeline legislation – also known as the “Amnesty Law” – which says that if a minor calls for medical assistance for an intoxicated person, they can not be prosecuted for underage drinking themselves, nor will the intoxicated person be prosecuted if they are underage.
This is an important law – its intention is to avoid a situation where a teen doesn’t call for help because he’s afraid he’s going to get in trouble.
It’s not a “get out of jail free” card, there are very specific rules to be followed, and it doesn’t protect teens from punishment from mom & dad, but it can keep kids safe when they find themselves in a dangerous situation and have to make a decision.
Amnesty is already the law in Ridgewood, because it’s the law in the entire state of New Jersey. And yet – this potentially-lifesaving law is only effective if kids know about it. In order for it to work, to potentially save a life or prevent injury, kids must know, in advance, that they can call 911 to get help, without fear.
I’ve talked to many Ridgewood teens since the state law was enacted, and I can say that none of them knew about this law.
One way to get the word out is to amend Ridgewood’s underage drinking ordinance to include the language of the state amnesty law, and I know you have such an amendment on the agenda tonight.
Several other towns and municipalities in New Jersey have revised their municipal codes in this way, and I urge our Council to take this step.
As you review the amendment tonight, I hope parents will be paying attention, and will take this opportunity to discuss the law and inform their children.
I hope teens will hear about this amendment, will talk about the law with each other, will know that it’s for real, and will remember it should they be faced with a dangerous situation – a friend that needs help – on any Friday or Saturday (or any other) night in Ridgewood.
All of us want Ridgewood teens to be safe. We all hope they make smart choices. But when they make a mistake, and it turns dangerous, this law can help ensure that mistake doesn’t turn into a tragedy.
Following my comments and those of Municipal Alliance chair Sheila Brogan last night, a few Council members had questions. Some of the questions and comments focused on perceived problems with the proposed ordinance's wording. As Village Attorney Matt Rogers explained, the wording is taken verbatim from the state law. If anyone has a problem with wording of the state law, they should take that up with Trenton. All we are trying to do is highlight the state law for Ridgewood teens.
The Municipal Alliance (of which I'm a member) will be putting together some materials and hopefully distributing to our high school students soon.
I've heard too many stories of close calls -- kids who dropped off a drunk friend on their doorstep, or invited a friend to stay and "sleep it off," or left a friend passed out on the curb or the right-of-way -- that luckily turned out OK. Kids make mistakes. We know that. It's normal for their development. It's also normal for them to fear getting in trouble and, in their immature brains, this fear can trump good decisions. I'm proud that our state had the good sense to enact the Amnesty Law and I hope Ridgewood's ordinance amendment will help get the word out in our town.