A couple I have known since the 1990s missed the party of the year the Christmas before last. Rather than a one-night party, this was a massively destructive series of parties held at their house when they were on vacation in late 2012. While many readers may not have heard of it, I am certain that many high school and college-age students know of it, since police estimate about 500 of them trekked in and out of the house at one time or another. Still stung in some ways, the couple wants to ask the parents of those teens, “Where were you in all of this?”

The couple took their family – five children (one with spouse) and mother-in-law – on a cruise to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. By agreement, everyone turned off cell phones and computers, so it was not until they reached their final port and reconnected that they learned that in their absence parties were held at their house, parties so out-of-hand and destructive that the police finally had to close the house and board up windows the kids had broken. Within minutes of their hearing of the damage and while still on the cruise ship, two of the children scoured cyberspace and came up with Tweets about and photos taken at the party. The Tweets and photos made it clear that the broad demographic that is Evanston was well represented.

On four occasions, with only Christmas itself intervening, the house was the scene of increasingly wild parties. On two of the nights the pet sitter/caretaker, known to the family for years, had opened the house to a few friends, and later, apparently, to anyone who showed up. Although – according to what the pet sitter told the family – only friends were invited on the third night, word seems to have gotten out and again the house filled with partygoers. On the last night, the pet sitter went to another job, but somehow people gained access to the house and the party continued for a fourth night.

The damage, as the couple described it to me and as I saw in their photos, was horrific: Every drawer had been opened and ransacked, a second-floor full-length mirror had been smashed on the basement floor, more than 500 beer cans had been scattered throughout the house, and there were body secretions and fluids on floors and furniture. Computers were stolen, as were other electronic devices. Jewelry that had been in the family for generations was gone. Wine saved for special occasions, emptied. Floors, rugs and furniture were covered with food, alcohol and paint stains. Beds were used, and bedding was soiled. Walls were splattered with paint-ball paint. And the pets were gone – having bolted in fear into the cold winter nights. It was a few days before they would return to the inside – scared but unharmed.

The monetary damage was in the thousands of dollars – nearing $70,000 at last count. For four full days after they returned to Evanston, the family (eight adults) sorted through what was left of their belongings, their drawers, their secret places and their open ones, even the trash cans and the garbage cart to save valuables that had been tossed and see what evidence they could find to present to the police. The couple felt they found plenty of evidence: a pay stub, clothing, a memory stick with photos, among other items.

After that, the house was in good enough shape to allow professionals in to really clean the place up – a task of two more days.

The couple tell me they are outraged, disheartened that this happened in the community where they have chosen to live for 25 years and disappointed that hardly any of the partygoers have come forward to admit their presence at any of the parties or apologize. Even more, they are shocked that no parents have contacted them.

I, too, am shocked and disheartened – shocked that young people could do what they did to a house and disheartened that they thought it was acceptable to behave that way. The police estimate that as many as 500 youth were in the house over that four-day debauch; the couple offer a more conservative estimate of 100.

The lack of respect that these young people (most of whom were Evanston residents but some came from Chicago and as far away as Highland Park) showed for the property, valuables and privacy of the family is breathtaking.

The couple tell me they feel disappointed that the police said they could not do more to track down those who were in the home and that even if they could prove that certain people attended the party, they would not necessarily be able to prove that those were the ones who did the damage.

The State’s Attorney, the couple said, explained that since they had given a key to their home to the pet-sitter, none of those who the pet sitter “invited” would be considered to be trespassing. A former State’s Attorney with whom I recently spoke concurred.

Several questions come to mind even as I write about this event more than a year later: Why were those young people there? Why would teens think it is all right to party at a house when the owners are gone? Why would anyone wreak such damage on the house? Where were the parents in all of this? What happened to knowing where one’s children are, knowing whose house they are visiting, and checking with the parents to make certain someone will be there?

Dr. Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of Evanston Township High School, said he had heard about the party. He offered the following: “My advice to parents is to know where your children are at all times and who they are with. If your children tell you they are going to a party at someone’s residence, contact the parents at that residence and confirm that they will be home and that the party will be well-supervised by adults. Ask questions so you are completely comfortable with the plans.

“My other advice to parents is to start at an early age and have conversations regularly throughout the teenage years about what you value and the importance of distinguishing right from wrong. Help your children reflect on their decisions and help them learn to think about the consequences of their decisions and their behavior. Children of all ages need lots of love and guidance from their parents, and that includes the teenage years.

“Finally, never give the key to your home to an underage person who is not a close family member. In this age of social media and instant communication, unforeseen and regrettable situations can develop in a nanosecond. If damage is done to your home, report it to the police and contact the parents of every person you can identify who attended the party. Parents deserve to know if their child has been involved in a bad situation and they should hold their children responsible for their actions.”

The couple asks even more: Why did the parents who do know that their children attended the party, including the parents of those who were arrested, not reach out and apologize, ask their children to apologize, or offer to offset the damages?

Police Chief Richard Eddington said he believes some parents do not wish to have their children held accountable for their mistakes because that could ruin their chances of getting into college. He pointed out that college admissions officials who are weighing applications have a relatively easy choice when one student has a record. “Kids do crazy, irresponsible things when they are teenagers, and this was a mistake with terrible ramifications,” he said.

The Aftermath

Well, the person who set the wheels in motion, the one who had the key to the home and the trust of the family, was the one who finally called the police. The pet sitter returned from the job on that last night, saw the pandemonium and called the authorities, earning the gratitude of the family.

When the parents of the pet sitter learned of the party – even before they heard the extent of the damage – they emailed the family, who were still on vacation, apologized and offered to do whatever they could to mitigate the damages and the pain.

This family has roots in the community, through schools, volunteer work and other civic activities.

They remain astounded by the damage incurred to their house and their belongings, amazed that the police and the State’s Attorney have so few tools to handle such situations, and most significantly feel betrayed by the Evanston community. They say they still wonder why not one of the parents of the children at the party had the simple parenting skill to follow-up on their child’s information about where they were going on a particular evening. The role of a parent is to guide a child toward young adulthood, and most teens, even those who do well in sports and school, are far from being adults.

The couple pointed out that in Evanston, “Parents famously excel at arguing for their children when academic, athletic, interpersonal and other challenges arise; but, many apparently are significantly deficient in the simple task of asking teens where they are going and verifying it with other parents. With toddlers and pre-teens, parents always ask and verify; when we get squarely into the working world these are standard procedures; for teens and young adults we fail them when these questions are not asked,” they said.

The couple also knows that some parents are aware of the party but only one set of parents has done the right thing by coming forward and only one participant has come by and apologized. This couple senses, “In the future, when something goes awry, all others will wonder ‘Why me?’ They will forget this educational moment. This moment to learn how to do the right thing and thus avoid future problems – this moment is being lost.”

And the family: They are doing fine, the house is largely back in order, their children are off growing up, and they are “hopeful that parents in Evanston and the larger community will hear this story and help their growing children by asking them important questions, verifying that all is as they are told, and, yes, showing them how to do the right thing when challenges arise.”

At the RoundTable, that is our hope as well.