Officials urge graduates to celebrate responsibly

Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke speaks at a news conference on Operation Graduation Tuesday in the City Council chambers at City Hall. Law enforcement and others encouraged students to celebrate their graduations responsibly. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

Law enforcement, city officials, the Midessa Community Alliance Coalition and Odessa Crime Stoppers gathered at City Hall Tuesday to stress the importance of graduates attending Project Graduation and to let residents know that there is a social host ordinance in force.

Project Graduation is an all-night alcohol free party with games and prizes for graduates. Permian’s Project Graduation is May 23 and Odessa High School’s is May 24. Both events are at the Odessa College Sports Center. Hours are 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for both. Once a graduate enters, they’re there for the duration. If they choose to leave, they’re not allowed back.

Representatives from Permian and OHS Project Graduation were presented with a $500 donation from the City of Odessa.

The city’s social host ordinance promotes the reduction of underage drinking by holding individuals or entities responsible for gatherings where alcohol is consumed, served, or in the possession of underage individuals. Violators can be charged up to $2,000 and charged with a misdemeanor.

This year, the ordinance has been amended to include all types of drugs.

For Operation Graduation, Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke said there will be additional officers on the street. Ector County ISD, University of Texas Permian Basin, the Ector County Sheriff’s Office will have more officers out and Texas Department of Public Safety officers also are aware of the operation.

“It’s great to be able to team with other agencies and work for a common goal,” Gerke said.

The objective is to have no fatalities, no serious injuries and no overdoses.

“That’s how you measure success,” Gerke said.

Sara Hinshaw, program director of the Midessa Community Alliance Coalition, said when it comes to alcohol use in Region 9, which includes Odessa, Midland and many other parts of West Texas, “We have as young as 12.7 years of age using alcohol, but we are also almost 8 percent higher than the state of Texas in our region,” Hinshaw said.

She added that tobacco use and vaping is anywhere from 5.5 percent to 6 percent higher use than the state of Texas.

“In our region, our kids are using alcohol and drugs at a higher rate than the entire state of Texas. As parents, as adults I feel we can do better at protecting our young people. Again, this is the reason we have enacted this social host ordinance. It has been in place since 2017 with a couple of amendments since then. … Our first age of use for illicit drugs in our area is 13.3 years of age,” Hinshaw said.

She urged grads to attend Project Graduation because there will be “plenty of fun stuff.”

“It lasts all night long and we encourage you to go and attend,” Hinshaw said.

Gerke congratulated the friends, family and loved ones of graduates, along with the graduates for completing the huge milestone of commencement.

“We would absolutely love for them to cherish and celebrate this time, but we want that celebration to be safe. We don’t want those celebrations to turn into tragedy,” Gerke said.

The Texas Department of Transportation conducted a study that showed there were over 500 alcohol-related accidents in the City of Odessa from 2020 to 2022. There were almost 30 alcohol-related fatalities, and well over 200 serious injuries because of alcohol, Gerke said.

Also, from Jan. 1, 2024, to May 20, 2024, the police department has made 216 DWI arrests.

“That’s just the Odessa Police Department. That doesn’t count DPS, or the Sheriff’s Office or UTPB, ECISD or any of those other agencies. So let that sink in. There are issues here. There are risks here, so law enforcement will do their part. You see them lined up here. We have some more in the audience. What we would really love to see is for the community and the parents to step up and give us these tips and really encourage your children not to consume alcohol, not to consume illegal narcotics and just be safe,” and having a fun, awesome celebration of their accomplishments, Gerke said.

Susan Rogers, CEO of Odessa Crime Stoppers, talks about how people can contact Crime Stoppers through the app or by phone anonymously with tips about underage drinking or parties going on. You will remain anonymous and there are cash rewards for anyone who calls in information that leads to an arrest, she said. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

Odessa Crime Stoppers CEO Susan Rogers asked that graduates celebrate responsibly this year.

“We have a tips line for those who have information about parties that are happening, underage drinking. We take information on MIPs, DWIs, any of the parties that are going on with social hosting; we will also accept that information. Our tips line is open 24 hours a day. The beauty of the tips line is that you can call in that tip if you’ve got friends that are at a party and you’re concerned about their safety and if they’re going to drink and drive and try to get home, you can always call that information into Crime Stoppers. It’s totally anonymous.

“No one will ever now that you made that phone call to us, and you never know, you could save someone’s life,” Rogers said.

Crime Stoppers’ app is called P3Tips or you can call 333-TIPS. You will remain anonymous and there are cash rewards for anyone who calls in information that leads to an arrest.

The mission of the Midessa Community Alliance Coalition (MCAC) is to create community awareness, regarding the health consequences of substance use, with an emphasis on underage drinking, marijuana, tobacco, and prescription drugs. This coalition works to increase citizen participation and commitment among all sectors of the community to reduce substance use and abuse in Ector and Midland counties.

MCAC is a Community Coalition Partnership (CCP) program of the Permian Basin Regional Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (PBRCADA).

Hinshaw said substance use goes back to the home and parental involvement.

“Start talking to your children. It is never too early to talk prevention,” she said.

Tell children that only mom and dad, or the school nurse can give you prescription medication.

“It’s not OK to take something that doesn’t have your name on it that a doctor didn’t prescribe to you,” Hinshaw said.

She noted that graduation is when kids feel they’re free because many of them are 18 and they don’t have to do what their parents say.

“But again, it goes back to the fact that our brains aren’t developed until the mid-20s and you start drinking at a young age like that, that addiction rate can increase,” Hinshaw said.