Law enforcement STARTs anonymous tip line aimed at teenagers

March 3, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Chittenden County law enforcement hopes a new anonymous phone line will help curb underage drinking parties and the problems that sometimes result. Authorities want teens to use the line for not just phoning in tips, but to actually text officers about any issues.

In mid-January, Chittenden County’s Stop Teen Alcohol Risk Team, also known as START, activated a phone line for teens and other individuals to use to report possible underage drinking parties, along with other illegal activity. They hope the texting option will let teens alert authorities anonymously and discreetly if their involved in potentially threatening situations.

The phone number is 363-TIPS. Officials said the tip line is another instrument to help prevent the serious problems underage alcohol use can create, such as binge drinking and drunken driving.

“It’s just an additional tool we can use to stop any underage drinking,” said Sgt. Al Fortin, Chittenden County’s START Coordinator. Fortin is also an officer with the Shelburne Police Department.

“We hope high school students and college students will be comfortable using this,” he added.

Within the first few weeks of the initiative, two tips already came in to the START team via text message, Fortin said.

In creating the anonymous line, START officers collaborated with local prevention groups to ensure teens would know of its existence. It’s hoped parents also become aware and inform their teenagers to use the line  to call or text if they’re in danger, said Christine Lloyd-Newberry, director of Chittenden South Supervisory Union’s Connecting Youth organization.

While parents can certainly use the tip line, “this is really something intended for youth to use,” Newberry said.

Each Vermont county has its own version of the START program, but Chittenden County remains the first to start an anonymous tip line with a texting feature, Fortin said. But the tip line isn’t the only one in the state that accepts texts. In February, University of Vermont police announced college students could text the department regarding any crimes. This came in response to a number of groping incidents on the university’s Burlington campus.

UVM Police Capt. Tim Bilodeau said the university’s anonymous texting has become an important part of how the department enforces the law. He said much of the department’s job is to control underage drinking because much of the campus’s population is under 21 years old.

“We get tips through texts every week, sometimes a couple times a day,” Bilodeau said.
Most police departments in Chittenden County participate in the START program, often designating officers to be members of the team on busy Friday and Saturday nights. When a teen texts or calls the tip line, Fortin explained, it’s received by an officer in charge of the line that evening. He or she, in turn, contacts the department at the call’s origin. The department then dispatches officers to the scene to verify if an actual underage party is taking place, or if a teen is in danger, Fortin said.

Also on busy nights, a few officers from around Chittenden County participate as START Team members, Fortin added. If police departments come across a large party and need additional officer assistant, the START is generally called in, he said.

“If they need our help, the START Team can quickly be activated,” Fortin said. “Usually departments don’t call the START Team unless there’s a real problem.”

The first two texts to come through the 363-TIPS line originated in Burlington. One text warned of teens drinking in a city park, but officers found no evidence upon investigation, Fortin said. Another text stated teens were drinking alcohol at a Super Bowl party. Burlington Police ended up issuing one citation for underage alcohol use that night, Fortin added.

Lloyd-Newberry said she hopes the tip line can also be used as a preventative measure. If a teen hears about a party at school, she hopes they call or text in about the planned event. If the party is to take place at someone’s house, officers could inform homeowners of the potential underage drinking party.

“A lot of times, mom or dad don’t know something like that happens or is going to happen at their home or property,” Lloyd-Newberry said.

While the tip line has been active for more than a month, raising awareness around Chittenden County communities takes time. Lloyd-Newberry said Connecting Youth posted the information at Champlain Valley Union High School and in the school’s daily announcements. Mariah Sanderson, coalition coordinator with the Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community, said the Queen City-based organization alerted many of the groups it works with.

“We’re getting the word out and so far, we’ve only received positive response,” Sanderson said.

In order for the tip line to become a go-to resource for teens reporting alcohol use or conveying they’re in a trouble situation, Lloyd-Newberry said parents should ask their children to put the 363-TIPS phone number into their cell phone’s contact list.