Drug Free Communities: A Maryland Grantee’s Story
By Rebecca A. Clay
Ask Katherine E. Wright, M.H.S., LCADC, about the goal of her area’s Drug Free Communities (DFC) coalition.
Her answer is simple: “We want to change the values and norms in our community so it’s not a rite of passage to use alcohol, tobacco, and drugs and to make non-use the norm for anyone under 18 for tobacco and 21 for alcohol,” said Ms. Wright, Assistant Director and Prevention Coordinator at Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, part of Maryland’s state government.
The coalition began with the discovery that using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs was quite common for young people in Queen Anne’s County, MD, located on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Maryland Adolescent Survey showed that usage rates among 6th through 12th graders were extremely high, said Ms. Wright, calling the results “alarming.”
Led by the Queen Anne’s County Community Partnership for Children and Families, the community took action. Now in its final year of a 5-year Drug Free Communities grant, the Drug Free Queen Anne’s coalition uses a multi-pronged approach that aims to get everyone in the community involved.
In the state attorney’s conference room in Queen Anne’s County, MD, a planning session for the upcoming teen court convenes over pizza to discuss upcoming cases. The teen court, presided over by a real judge, gives teens a chance to play the role of prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, and bailiff as well as jurors.
Appearing before their peers, young first-time offenders charged with minor offenses receive “sentences” including community service.
There’s a teen court, for example, where young first-time offenders who have committed minor offenses appear before their peers and receive sentences that might include community service, apology letters, or a tour of the detention center.
Presided over by a real judge, teens take on the roles of prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, and bailiff as well as jurors.
A Character Counts Advisory Council enlists 109 volunteer “coaches” to go into the schools and talk about various aspects of character, such as trustworthiness, respect, and responsibility.
Of course, said Ms. Wright, they also squeeze anti-drug messages into their 15-minute classroom sessions.
Another group in the coalition focuses on a mentoring program and other strategies for keeping African American students in school and off drugs.
Young people themselves plan many of the activities, emphasized Ms. Wright. Members of the Assets Team, for instance, decide on activities and then organize and fundraise to make them a reality. Recent activities have included putting on a play, watching an Orioles game, and going to a restaurant to learn how to order a meal, which fork to use, and so on. “That boosted their self-esteem,” said Ms. Wright.
The students also help plan an annual youth summit. Hosted at the Queen Anne’s County High School and organized by a church, the summit includes recognition of teen-court volunteers, a summary of data on youth substance use, a dance, motivational speakers, and booths with information and giveaways.
The National Guard is also very involved, bringing a helicopter, a rock-climbing wall, and tricycles and go-carts that kids can drive while wearing goggles that simulate drunkenness. (For more on the National Guard, see SAMHSA News online, July/August 2008.)
The local cable television station publicizes upcoming events as well as information about substance abuse.
And those are just a few examples, said Ms. Wright, noting that the coalition’s work is already paying off. Although the coalition is still analyzing the 2007 data, the preliminary analysis shows a significant drop in alcohol, tobacco, and drug use in almost all groups.
Ms. Wright is also seeing increased buy-in from community members. Last year, for instance, 400 parents signed a pledge to lock up their alcohol and not allow minors to smoke or drink at their homes. This year, she said, more than 800 have signed even before the coalition has distributed its mailing through the school system.
“We’re able to mobilize everybody,” said Ms. Wright. And by working together in a coalition, she said, “we’re able to communicate among each other so everyone knows what the left hand and the right hand are doing.”
Read more about the Drug Free Communities program. In addition, 2009 grant opportunities are available.