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Awareness + Action = Progress in Pittsfield, MA

Pittsfield is a small town of about 42,000 in Berkshire County, MA, but prevention of underage drinking is a large concern. Underage alcohol use in the county exceeds national averages and, by the time students reach 12th grade, impacts more students than any other substance.

Community-based organizations have responded by making Town Hall Meetings part of their broader prevention approach. For 2012, Pittsfield Public Schools has taken the lead by hosting events for families at its two high schools. In 2008 and 2010, the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership (PPP), a program of the Berkshire United Way, hosted events.

The focus of PPP’s 2010 Town Hall Meeting was on educating local parents about the Massachusetts social host liability law. PPP used two incentives to encourage greater attendance at this event. One was to offer parents discounted prom tickets and door prizes, which resulted in greater attendance than in 2008. The other was to give students a significant role in planning and presentation. According to PPP director Karen Cole, “Parents will turn out to see their kids perform.” An added attraction was the district attorney—a strong proponent of prevention efforts—as the keynote speaker.

PPP has followed up its 2010 Town Hall Meeting by continuing its campaign targeting parents. One campaign objective is to reach parents who may not have attended community forums such as the Town Hall Meetings. Cole said the goals of the ongoing campaign are to change social norms and not just to prevent underage drinking. According to Cole, “It’s about creating a healthy community and increasing support for prosocial behavior.” The PPP campaign focuses primarily on highlighting the positives, using credible data, eliminating fear-based messaging, and using student-run groups such as Students Against Destructive Decisions to bring its underage drinking prevention message into the community.

A biennial assessment of youth substance abuse in Berkshire County indicates that progress is being made. Current alcohol use by 10th and 12th grade students declined between 2009 and 2011, and the percentage of 8th grade students who had ever tried alcohol continued a downward trend since 2007.  Cole attributed this decline, in part, to the use of Town Hall Meetings and other venues to make adults more aware of the statewide social host law and to a regulation issued by the local liquor license board that mandates responsible beverage service training. Ms. Cole also cited PPP’s social norming efforts aimed at both parents and students as a possible influence.

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