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Town Hall Meeting Has Community Abuzz About Underage Drinking—West Hartford, CT

More than 150 teens and adults attended the first-ever Town Hall Meeting on underage drinking in West Hartford, CT—far more than organizers expected. Local concern about underage drinking runs high, however. According to the West Hartford High School Drug and Alcohol Survey, 30 percent of high school students reported drinking in the past month, and, of these, 56 percent reported having been drunk at least once in the past month.

Community members used this event as a forum for discussing possible ways to help local youth avoid the negative consequences of alcohol use. The theme of the event—“What’s the Buzz: Choices and Consequences”—emphasized that decisions made by teens about alcohol use can result in far-reaching negative effects. Seeds for the “What’s the Buzz” Town Hall were planted in 2010–2011 when the Institute for Community Research (ICR), supported by the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission (WHSAPC), formed the Community Action Research Team (CART) with students from two West Hartford high schools. Because of their concern about rates of binge drinking reported in the West Hartford High School Drug and Alcohol Survey, CART teens took the initiative to learn more about binge drinking among their peers and were trained in action research methods. The CART teens developed and carried out indepth interviews and surveys with their peers to better understand underage drinking behaviors, attitudes, consequences, environments in which it occurs, reasons for binge drinking, and actions that could be taken to prevent such damaging behavior.

The CART teens used recurrent themes from their data to produce theatrical skits that illustrated the consequences of underage binge drinking, performing them in classrooms and at community sites. To reach a wider audience and influence drinking behavior among their peers, CART teens, working with ICR research and production staff, created a video from one of these skits titled, “The New Year’s Eve Party.” The video consists of a main story and three alternative endings depicting different outcomes of decisions the key players in the story could have made. By illustrating actual challenges faced by today’s teens when they make decisions about alcohol, the video provided a provocative introduction to the Town Hall Meeting. (The video and an accompanying curriculum are being pilot tested in West Hartford public schools for release in 2013.)

An invited panel moderated by Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green engaged the audience in a lively conversation about the many complex and sensitive issues raised in the video. Panelists included a community-licensed clinical social worker/therapist, an emergency room doctor, a police officer stationed at one of the town high schools, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and two CART teens. The event also featured a mini-expo of community resources and entertainment by The Outrageously Golden Park Project and Nox, West Hartford teen musical performers.

Much of the evening’s success was due to collaboration among WHSAPC and its many member organizations: the Town of West Hartford Community of Concern, the Town of West Hartford Department of Human and Leisure Services, the Capital Area Substance Abuse Council, and ICR. The Town Hall Meeting began with a community-resource mini-expo, in which 13 community organizations provided literature and information to interested adults and youth. As an example of broad-based community support, Macca Plumbing and Heating offered $100 to the sports team or teen organization with the greatest number of youth attendees. Many other local businesses donated food and raffle items to the event, ensuring its success.

One measure of success is community engagement. Thirty-one attendees completed an exit survey at the end of the meeting. More than 80 percent of those who completed the form said that they would come again to a similar event, and 87 percent said the event was either effective or very effective in educating them about the dangers of underage drinking. Given the audience response, the buzz around West Hartford is that this Town Hall Meeting will be the beginning of a new community tradition.

The WHSAPC has identified a few lessons learned in how to ensure meeting success and a high level of attendance:

  • Plan the event far in advance (5–6 months ahead) to ensure involvement of all partner organizations, schools, volunteers, and youth;
  • Contact the press early to attract adequate media coverage and promotion of the event;
  • Involve youth, community organizations, local businesses, and volunteers in all phases of the Town Hall Meeting planning and implementation;
  • Decide in advance about adult and youth responsibility in planning the event;
  • Create a strategic social media plan to attract even more youth participants; and
  • Offer appropriate incentives to both youth and adults to encourage them to complete any surveys.

For more information about the “What’s the Buzz” event and the teen underage drinking prevention video, contact Paige Nuzzolillo, Substance Abuse Prevention Research Educator at the Institute for Community Research, e-mail: paige.nuzzolillo@icrweb.org.


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