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Underage Drinking Prevention Tailgate Is Springboard to Success in Coffee County, Tennessee

Underage Drinking Prevention Tailgate Is Springboard to Success in Coffee County, Tennessee

Question: What do you get if you put three mayors, two police chiefs, one sheriff, and one district attorney, including some who have not always seen eye-to-eye, in the same 2013 Town Hall Meeting roundtable in Manchester, Tennessee? Answer: If you’re the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, applying the Strategic Prevention Framework from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), what you get is a strongly worded county leaders’ resolution to stop underage drinking signed by all participants that calls for:

  • Helping to establish a community norm that rejects underage drinking as an acceptable part of growing up;
  • Holding youth accountable for underage drinking parties;
  • Encouraging parents and adults to take steps to prevent teenage drinking parties while they are away;
  • Increasing awareness and providing an incentive for hosts to be vigilant in preventing underage drinking;
  • Deterring adults and youth from hosting parties where underage drinking occurs; and
  • Allowing law enforcement officers to issue a citation or charge individuals who host underage drinking parties for “providing the place for underage drinking to occur.”

The 2013 roundtable and the landmark resolution are the latest results of several years of strategic planning and evolving efforts to persuade parents, law enforcement, and public officials to get behind Tennessee’s social host liability law as well as to encourage law enforcement agencies and the courts to effectively enforce the law. Having this collection of key public officials signal their intention to put their combined influence behind Tennessee’s social host law represents major progress toward improving the local environment. As in many communities, a persistent attitude among local parents and other adults that underage drinking is a harmless rite of passage, reinforced by some grownups’ insistence that they drank in their teens and came to no harm, is a myth that the coalition has had to continually address. As others have also found, the Town Hall Meetings model was a good fit for the coalition’s logic model planning and an effective vehicle for driving change.

The coalition recognized that both general public and official support for the state’s social host law was necessary for the law to benefit the community. Kristina Clark, executive director, and coalition members met with police, the sheriff, and court officials prior to the 2013 roundtable Town Hall Meeting to find out what was needed to get them to enforce the law. After discovering that the wording of the state law has impeded local application, the coalition is advocating revision of the law to allow for easier enforcement in Coffee County. This action has also helped position the coalition as a useful ally and partner for enforcement and justice system officials.

Earlier Town Hall Meetings helped the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition educate some community leaders and parents about the negative consequences many underage drinkers experience, but it was difficult to draw an audience and get media attention. One reason, according to Clark, is that, unlike too many other communities, Manchester and its immediate vicinity had never experienced a dramatic underage drinking tragedy that can shock complacent residents into action and demands for reform. Besides the harmless-rite-of-passage myth, the grownups and kids alike assumed that, where alcohol was concerned, “Everybody’s doing it.” To discredit such assumptions, the coalition’s LEAD (Linked Effort Against Drugs) youth program’s campaign, created its “I am the 61%” slogan, referencing the 61 percent of middle and high school students in Coffee County who are not current drinkers. The need to counter local misperceptions about youth and alcohol also prompted development of the coalition’s Alcohol Brief, a two-sided factsheet widely distributed by volunteers during 2012 at the annual Town Hall Meeting event and by other means elsewhere.

In addition, youth-led planning in 2012 introduced a radical new format that attracted several times the number of participants in previous Town Hall Meetings. For their October 26, 2012, Town Hall Meeting event, teen coalition members issued an invitation to “Free BBQ, Games, & Prizes … at the LEAD Tailgate … from 5:30 p.m. until Kickoff in the football parking lot.” LEAD members developed promotional materials, delivered their invitations via traditional and social media methods, and volunteered at the tailgate event. A LEAD-created flyer got the attention of adults to the 100 hours of community service, $2,500 fine, and driver’s license suspension they could face if convicted under the social host law. Separate bags for parents and for kids were assembled, and coalition staff and adult volunteers, including law enforcement personnel, joined LEAD youth to hand out the materials and answer questions.

The bag handed to about 175 parents included the social host cartoon flyer; the new Alcohol Brief factsheet about underage drinking and its consequences; and a postcard pre-addressed to the local police department, expressing appreciation for police efforts to stop underage drinking and make effective use of the social host law. Adults signed the cards, sometimes writing their own messages, and the coalition added postage and mailed them. More than 200 of the cards reached the police department: Many of their messages are read out loud at daily roll call, or they are posted in the police officer’s break room. Most came from the October 2012 tailgate Town Hall Meeting and have contributed to a significant improvement in positive and productive collaboration between Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition and area law enforcement.

Asked what is most important about Town Hall Meeting planning, Clark says, “Know your community, and figure out what will work to get your community’s attention and win their support.” Then use the most effective communication channels available to keep your audience informed. Radio and newspapers, along with parent invitations mailed with student report cards, are what Clark credits for making 2012’s tailgate Town Hall Meeting successful. Thanks to the large turnout, the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition already is considering two Town Hall Meeting events for 2014, with one specifically addressing underage drinking among adolescent girls. Clark notes that girls often drink as much as adolescent boys, but these girls and their parents might not realize the greater risks that girls face when they use alcohol.

“When I joined the coalition, planning a Town Hall Meeting on underage drinking was the first big thing I had to do,” Clark recalls. “It was a great learning experience for me, and something I have looked forward to do every year since. With SAMHSA’s support, Town Hall Meetings are helping us bring down rates of adolescent alcohol use in Coffee County. Thank you for the continued support, SAMHSA!”


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