DARIEN — As injuries, deaths and arrests caused by underage drinking are thrust into the local and national spotlight, communities are reevaluating their reactions to teens caught drinking.

Following a local trend, Darien has established a juvenile review board to deal with first-time offenders, particularly underage drinkers, without getting them involved in the legal system.

“Working in the high school a little bit and working in the youth division, I’ve had a front row seat to this,” said Detective James Palmieri, former Darien High School school resource officer. “To make a very long story short, your typical case that goes to juvenile court are often bookended by serious cases. They’re not getting any sort of attention.”

Palmieri, who has been a detective in the youth division since March, proposed the idea for the board to the Darien Police Commission after months of research and sitting in on the juvenile review board for Norwalk and Westport.

“It’s a way for the police department to handle juvenile cases without court involvement,” he said.

The police commission unanimously approved the idea, which would allow juveniles to opt out of going to court and instead have the option of being offered a diversionary program after pleading their case in front of a review board.

With the board in effect, a patrol officer would make referrals to the youth bureau after catching teens in minor offenses, like drinking underage. The juvenile could then choose to appear in front of the board comprised of eight to 10 people from community agencies who regularly deal with youths. The board would meet several times a month to hear new cases, as well as follow up on the old.

To participate in the program, teens would have to admit guilt, but would be free of facing consequences in the legal system. Alternative punishments would include options such as substance abuse counseling and family therapy sessions. The program would only be available to first- time offenders.

“This is where we can get creative and go from not just a punitive angle, but supportive,” Palmieri said. “We can really put a program together for a kid that can not only give them a consequence, but some kind of support if needed. The real carrot on the stick here is the child comes out of this without any court record. It gives them some kind of pain, but it also gives them support, and it doesn’t give them a record they’ll have to drag around for a few years.”

Palmieri based his proposal, in part, on the Norwalk Juvenile Review Board. Also serving neighboring communities like Westport, the board has served as a model for other boards around the region and has shown a high success rate, with 85 percent of youths served staying out of further legal trouble.

“You’re taking individuals and keeping them out of the judicial system, which we find to be a huge positive for whatever the incident was and huge positive outcome in the long run,” said Lt. Terry Blake, with the Norwalk Police Department.

According to Jasen Getner, case manager for the Norwalk Juvenile Review Board, the city’s youth services department reviews cases to recommend them to the board. If the case is accepted, the board looks at the juvenile’s background and how they’re doing in school, at home and in their community. The board then hears the teenager’s case.

“We ask questions about the incident so we make sure we know what led to the incident so we can make sure to prevent it in the future,” Getner said.

The program has been used for all offenses, ranging from vandalism to minor theft. Program solutions have included counseling, community service and restitution, as long as it applies to the offense. The case is managed for up to a year, and if the juvenile completes it successfully, they can say they’ve never been arrested.

“I think the JRB (Juvenile Review Board) has been a great success,” Getner said. “Our SVU investigators (who receive the initial juvenile summons) and patrol officers have found it to be a significant positive.”

The juvenile review board is one of several steps Darien has recently made to find a more effective way to respond to teenage drinkers. Earlier this year, the police stopped giving names of students caught at parties to the high school to have them face in-school consequences for the behavior. The high school, with the Board of Education, is reevaluating its policy, “The Commitment,” which dealt with out of school drinking incidents by suspending students from extracurricular activities.

Some concerns about the commitment was that it only applied to students in extracurricular activities. It also relied on the names of students caught at parties, which meant it was random in its enforcement.

Now, the school board is in the process of adjusting “the commitment” to focus on educating and not punishing students for things that happen outside of school.

“We’re examining ways to address this issue in a broad way that goes well beyond the commitment,” Superintendent of Schools Dan Brenner said. “It’s all built on how we can educate our kids better and that’s all kids. That will involve program curriculum during the school day, as well. We’re gonna explore and research best practices in terms of delivery of instruction around making good decisions.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata