Northern California’s Butte County has roughly 90 public K-12 schools and is home to both Butte College and California State University, Chico. Many students who graduate from local high schools go on to attend college nearby, which has created what local officials call “the four-year rule.” According to Vernon Spearman, of Butte County Department of Behavioral Health, this is when a junior or senior in high school knows a freshman in college who, in turn, has access to fellow college students who can legally buy alcohol. This, by default, gives the high school student a pipeline to alcohol—a main contributor to underage drinking.
Those who work with the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health’s Prevention Unit say the biggest reason high school students do not reach their full potential is because they give up what they want most for what they want at the moment. One way the group tackles this problem is by creating strong leaders across county high school athletic programs.
Since 2009, the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health has partnered with eight high schools to send a consistent message: Student athletes will be positive role models for their peers and the next generation, and they will strive for excellence on and off the field. Through efforts like Friday Night Live, a youth-led action group to prevent underage drinking, and the Athlete Committed campaign, which supports athletes, coaches and their parents to live a healthy lifestyle and reduce access to alcohol, youth leaders hone their public speaking skills while teaching fellow students, athletes, and parents about the dangers of underage drinking.
How They Did It
According to Spearman, the Butte County of Department of Behavioral Health held three Communities Talk: Town Hall Meetings to Prevent Underage Drinking events in 2016. Their success has largely been due to:
- Joining efforts with other on-campus initiatives. Friday Night Live is a youth-led action group that meets on high school campuses. The group tag-teamed with Athlete Committed to reach a wider audience and send a more meaningful message than either group could on its own.
- Tying prevention messaging to specific student groups. The group had met with local rotary clubs and faith-based organizations to discuss prevention, but the events had low attendance. After the group began including student athletes and their parents, attendance increased significantly. Spearman recommends integrating prevention messaging into an existing orientation program for sports groups or school clubs to guarantee a captive audience and build prevention into the group culture.
- Giving youth the power to lead. At all three events, student leaders were the main speakers. They talked about the dangers of underage drinking, told stories about local tragedies that involved underage drinking, and explained the risks that parents take when they have alcohol in the home or otherwise allow access to minors. This helped student speakers develop their leadership skills, and made the message more powerful to other students—and parents.
The events had a large turnout because student athletes and their parents were required to attend orientation sessions at the beginning of the sports season. Other results include:
- Local high schools have incorporated underage drinking policies into their athletics code of conduct for players and their parents.
- At one event, 400 parents signed a pledge to take actions to prevent underage drinking.
Spearman said he is the proudest when he watches students involved in the Friday Night Live and Athletes Committed programs showing off their leadership and public speaking skills during sessions with hundreds of participants. “They are so confident. They’re able to talk to their peers but also to adults. They’ll get even better with practice through college, and then when they’re in the job market, they will have a degree and a huge edge over the competition,” Spearman said.
A Community in Action
Moving forward, the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health plans to:
- Continue partnering with school sports teams for consistent messaging about underage drinking.
- Push the message of parental responsibility to reach all high school parents.