SIKESTON, Mo. -- The actions of a Sikeston couple who hosted a high school graduation party that police say involved underage drinking reflect a widespread attitude among parents that it's OK to hold such parties, a leader of a drug-free coalition says.
"It is not an isolated case," said Jane Pfefferkorn, executive director of Mission Missouri, a faith-based social service organization in Sikeston and a member of the Southeast Missouri Drug Free Communities Coalition.
"We are just trying to get the message out: Not only is it illegal, but it is just irresponsible," she said of underage drinking parties hosted by parents.
Armed with a $100,000 federal grant over five years, the coalition hopes to market that message through a "parents who host lose the most" campaign.
Some of the money is for staffing, yard signs and other advertising to get out the message. A third of the funding will pay the cost of having University of Missouri Institute of Mental Health staff track the progress and outcomes of the coalition's efforts, Pfefferkorn said.
The coalition began organizing about a year and a half ago, Pfefferkorn said. It currently has more than 40 members, including parents, youths, and representatives of law enforcement, schools, churches and youth organizations in Scott, Mississippi and New Madrid counties.
The coalition plans to hold a public meeting June 26 to expand its membership. The location has yet to be determined for the 6:30 p.m. meeting, Pfefferkorn said.
The recent drinking party involving Mark Cheatham and his wife, Terry Brewer-Cheatham, of 123 Greenbrier Drive in Sikeston has divided the community, with some voicing support for the couple's decision to host the graduation party and others applauding the actions of law enforcement, Pfefferkorn said.
The party occurred in an affluent neighborhood. "Some of the people fussing at police now would be applauding if police were arresting folks in another part of town," she said.
Scott County prosecutor Paul Boyd on May 31 filed 30 state misdemeanor charges each against Cheatham and Brewer-Cheatham. All of the charges accuse them of supplying alcohol to minors at a May 20 party at their home.
Each charge carries a maximum punishment of six months in the county jail and a $500 fine.
Cheatham and Brewer-Cheatham haven't responded to reporters' inquiries.
Law enforcement officials said dozens of students, many of them having graduated earlier in the day from Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau, attended the party. Some students fled when Sikeston Department of Public Safety officers arrived on the scene. Officers issued municipal citations to 30 people, ages 17 to 20, on charges of being minors in possession of alcohol.
The Cheathams hosted the party at a time when the coalition was getting out its anti-hosting message in yard signs.
Yard signs began going up in April, Pfefferkorn said. By May 20, about 600 yard signs had been put up in the Charleston, New Madrid and Sikeston areas, she said. One of those signs apparently ended up in the Cheathams' garage, according to an incident report filed by the Sikeston Department of Public Safety.
Pfefferkorn said the incident demonstrates the challenge the coalition faces in getting parents to change their habits.
Not only do parents face fines and possible jail time for hosting such parties, they also risk civil lawsuits should underage drinkers get injured in an accident, she said.
Pfefferkorn and 32nd Judicial Circuit drug court administrator Steve Narrow said research shows that underage drinkers have a greater chance of developing alcohol problems later in life.
Narrow, whose drug court deals with offenders in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties, said too many parents believe it's OK to host such parties because they think they can monitor the activities of their children and other high school students.
"That is insanity," he said.
Like Pfefferkorn, Narrow believes many parents see no harm in hosting high school graduation parties and allowing minors to drink alcoholic beverages.
"I think it is pervasive attitude of many communities," he said.
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