Op-ed piece in school newspaper leads to meeting with town police
BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — With parades, games, food trucks and old friends, Niskayuna’s biggest community event, Niska-Day, should have been a celebration for graduating senior Samantha Burgess.
But it wasn’t. Something was bothering her.
As she looked around the fields at Craig Elementary School, Burgess was disheartened to see groups of her peers, all under age 21, surreptitiously drinking alcohol among the many families in attendance.
Some added vodka to soft drinks; others simply shielded beer cans from view.
Her frustration was compounded by the fact that Niska-Day is more than a festival; it’s a multi-decade tradition sponsored and run by the Niskayuna Community Action Program, whose mission is intertwined with substance abuse prevention. In fact, the group is working to reduce consumption of alcohol and other drugs using funds from the federal Drug-Free Communities Support Program Grant.
Burgess, who was weeks from graduation at the time, decided to make her case to fellow high school students through the school newspaper, The Warrior. Her op-ed article, “It’s time for changes [at] Niska-Day,” was blunt.
“Personally, I think it is sad that students take a day dedicated to celebrating the community as an opportunity to openly break the law,” she wrote. “In a way, knowing that this is how some teens choose to spend their day takes the fun out of it for the rest of us, because their behavior takes away the element of camaraderie that makes Niska-Day what it is.”
In her article, Burgess called for stronger scrutiny from law enforcement and also noted multiple calls to the Niskayuna Police Department went unreturned.
Burgess recently sat down with a Gazette reporter and the Niskayuna Police Department’s press information officer, Deputy Chief Michael Stevens, to air her concerns and have her questions answered.
“I read this, and I think you’re accurate in many parts of this,” Stevens told Burgess, glancing at a highlighted copy of her column. “The ironic thing is, we actually grabbed a bunch of kids this year.”
Stevens said police were more proactive than ever at the 2015 event thanks to a policy change. Instead of posting officers at one static location, they moved among three. Some were charged with walking the grounds for half-hour shifts, and bicycle patrols were also used.
“Get into the tents, get into stuff like that, get into the fields where kids are,” Stevens said.
In fact, a bicycle patrol officer discovered a group of intoxicated teens and delivered them to responsible adults. One teen, who appeared to have alcohol poisoning, was taken to a hospital.
Still, Stevens said, none of the students faced charges.
“They weren’t drinking there; they were drunk,” Stevens said, and, according to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, that’s not enough to take action against an intoxicated person.
“The interesting thing with that law is that you actually have to possess it at the time,” Stevens said. “The funny thing is, if it’s in your system, it’s not in your possession.”
Technicalities like these, designed to protect people’s rights, prevent police from taking the sorts of actions Burgess recommended in her opinion piece. For example, random searches are illegal.
“You’ll find, and I’ve learned in a 13-year career, that things are never what they seem, especially when it comes to laws. There’s loopholes in laws. It is the way it is, and ABC, that’s one of the big loopholes,” Stevens said.
The two discussed the manpower of both the local police and Niska-Day’s volunteers, tossing solutions back and forth. Why not set up roadblocks to look for drunken drivers, or breathalyze people behaving suspiciously? After a conversation that appeared to be mutually enlightening, Stevens asked a question of his own.
“I saw in your article that you saw some kids that you thought were suspicious,” he said. “Any reason that you didn’t flag us down and tell us? Because that’s a big part of it, too.”
Burgess thought for a moment.
“I probably should have said something, but you also don’t want to be like . . . it’s hard to be that person who turns in your friends,” she said. “I’ll be honest, some of the people who I know were drinking are my friends.
“So I don’t want to be that person who gets them in legal trouble. You know what I mean?” she continued. “In some ways, it feels like one person is so . . . I don’t know. I feel kind of powerless.”
Stevens encouraged Burgess, and others who feel the same way she does, to embrace any small changes they can make.
“I think that’s one way you can make it better, is more kids like you coming out,” Stevens said. He noted the athletes in the Warrior Project, also sponsored by N-CAP, as good examples of courage in the face of peer pressure.
“For what it’s worth I was the exact same as you when I was your age,” he added. “I was the sober guy. If you think you’re in the minority now, don’t worry: We usually turn out pretty well.”
This story originally appeared at dailygazette.com.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the extended version of the story, to be published in Your Niskayuna on July 17, 2015.