The Maryville City Council convened in special session Monday at Northwest Missouri State University for an hour-long dialogue with students regarding the legal age limit for entering bars and taverns.
Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the 50 or so students present indicated they want the minimum to stay where it is at age 19. Less expected, perhaps, were statements on the part of some city officials that they may support that view.
The council has been studying the bar age issue for several months following complaints by older adults that young people are being illegally served in local establishments.
Mayor Glenn Jonagan has said any action by the council to raise the age standard will not happen before this summer, and may not occur at all. He emphasized Monday that the "process" is still one of gathering information, and that input from Northwest students will be weighed with that from law enforcement, the business community and university administrators.
As the meeting progressed, comments began to center on a single question: Are college students under 21 and out for a good time safer in bars where steps are taken to prevent underage drinking, or at "house parties" where the law is more easily ignored?
Maryville Public Safety Director Keith Wood set the tone by saying his department's primary concern is safety. As a parent, Wood said, he would rather his child go dancing at a bar monitored by police officers and bouncers than to a private party where there is an increased risk for binge drinking and sexual assault.
Wood sketched a brief history of the age-19 statute, which was passed in 1995 in an attempt to keep high school students out of local drinking establishments. Before that time, Wood said, there was no age limit, even though the legal drinking age, then as now, was 21.
Student Senate President Riley Ziemer seconded Wood's remarks, saying that, in his opinion, alcohol violations and other risky behavior on the part of Northwest students are more common at "house parties" than bars.
Ashton Raffety, the student representative on the Northwest Board of Regents, told the council he has seen underage drinkers escorted from establishments, and that police and bar owners work together to enforce the law.
Several students agreed with Raffety's assessment, but added that it is not at all uncommon for minors to arrive at bars already intoxicated.
Councilman Jeff Funston speculated that raising the bar entry age to 21 might create more problems than it solved.
"Safety — that's the only thing that has to be demonstrated to me," he said.
"We need to be sure that while we're trying to do something good, we aren't actually making things worse."
Mick Hoskey, who owns Molly’s, a bar and dance club on Market Street, said he has kept track of customer age patterns, and that 20 to 25 percent of Molly's patrons are under 21. Of those admitted to the bar who are too young to drink legally, about 60 percent are female, he said.
Page 2 of 2 - Hoskey said the presence of so many young women indicated to him that they felt safe inside a controlled, policed environment.
Senior Laura Hoeffner, who transferred to Northwest from the University of Missouri, said she witnessed "frightening" scenes of student alcohol abuse at house parties while a student in Columbia, where patrons must be 21 to enter a bar.
"I feel safer here on social outings than I’ve ever felt in my life," Hoeffner said. "I really think what we do here is safe and it's working."
Some of Monday's discussion addressed other steps that might be taken to enhance student safety without changing the age limit. These included an open-container law, which would prohibit drinking in public spaces, and an enhanced safe-ride program, in which buses would collect drinkers and return them to campus.
Northwest currently operates a safe-ride program using vans, but some students have complained about long pick-up times and insufficient passenger capacity.
Following Monday's meeting, Councilman Ron Moss said the city's main concern should be law enforcement. If an age-19 bar entry standard helps reduce under-21 drinking, Moss said he favors leaving the statute alone. But if evidence suggests otherwise, then he believes the age limit should be raised.