Spring break 2021: Northwest Florida law enforcement continues to crack down on underage drinking
Spring break 2021 is here and local law enforcement “isn’t messing around” when it comes to underage drinking.
Lt. Jason Fulghum with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said his department already has made 51 spring break-related arrests since the first wave of visitors arrived about March 6.
The Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office and the Walton County Sheriff’s Office will have increased patrols at popular spring break destinations until the season dies down about April 25. That includes a strict zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking.
“It’s basically a 100% arrest if you’re caught during spring break in possession of alcohol underage, or violating any of the other spring break-related crimes that we have problems with,” Fulghum said. “You will be arrested.”
The policy isn’t without good reason, he added. Okaloosa and Walton counties gradually began increasing the severity of punishments for spring break-related offenses a few years ago in response to incidents such as sexual assaults, alcohol poisonings and fights getting out of hand.
“In a lot of areas, the spring break crowd just got so out of control because it draws in another element of people who want to prey on spring breakers,” said Walton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Corey Dobridnia.
A 2015 incident in Panama City Beach was the catalyst for stricter policies at many law enforcement departments in the area.
“They had an incident at Panama City Beach where they had a young lady that got raped on the beach,” Fulghum said. “Instead of anyone helping her, they actually just videotaped it and posted it online.”
That same year, the area had a few drive-by shootings at open house parties, Fulghum said. Once Panama City Beach and Bay County passed ordinances banning alcohol at the beach during spring break, some students turned to Destin.
“That generated a lot of chatter on the college websites saying things basically to the effect of ‘Doesn’t matter to us, we’ll just go to Destin,’ ” Fulghum said. “As a result of that, we adopted the policy of zero-tolerance. So did Walton County.”
The policy has proven effective during the past five years. Fulghum said the number of alcohol poisonings, distressed swimmers, fights, sexual assaults and even people falling off balconies has noticeably decreased.
“So far over these past five or six years that we’ve been doing this we have not had a single spring break-related sexual assault,” Fulghum said. “All of those safety issues are being directly affected by us having this zero-tolerance policy.”
Dobridnia said Walton County also has been able to prevent many of those types of incidents.
“Most kids that we interact with are in compliance and educated,” Dobridnia said. “They know Walton County doesn’t mess around, and we do our best to educate before this even gets here.”
Lately, it’s high schoolers, not college students, who have not been abiding by policies. As a result, Dobridnia said the Sheriff’s Office has had to shift resources to different areas.
While most college students travel to Miramar Beach, families tend to visit the smaller towns in the eastern part of the county. Some of those areas have implemented curfews and the Sheriff’s Office has sent more patrols to that side of the county.
“We want people to come down here. We want them to enjoy themselves. We just want them to be safe and to make responsible decisions that aren’t going to end up getting them in trouble or hurting someone,” Dobridnia said.
This season is gearing up to be quite busy on the beaches. In 2020, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office made 369 spring break-related arrests despite the season being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was actually on a pace to be more,” Fulghum said. “If that pace had continued throughout spring break, we would have had much more arrests in 2020 than we did in 2019.”
The cancellation of spring break at many colleges and high schools hasn’t stopped students from making vacation plans this year. Fulghum said condominiums in the area have advised law enforcement that they are 100% booked for March and April.
“What we’re hearing from the actual students is that although the colleges are not officially having a spring break, they’re still going to come and just do their classes online,” Fulghum said. “So we’re anticipating it being average to above average.”
Dobridnia said Walton County’s occupancy also appears to be up compared to last year. As college students and families continue to flock to the beaches, Dobridnia and Fulghum agree that the main goal is for them to stay safe.
“We want to encourage people to come here and to enjoy what this area has to offer, but we want them to do it safely and responsibly,” Fulghum said. “If they come here and break the law then they’re going to be arrested.”