BATH — An alcohol-related accident that kills four teens has a significant impact on a community.
In Steuben County, such an accident in 2007 was one of a few major incidents that led officials there to become part of a national effort to reduce alcohol and substance use by young people. And according to recent statistics, efforts to create "Drug-Free Communities" are working.
"Every community has instances like that," explained Norman McCumiskey, Drug-Free Communities program coordinator for the Steuben Council on Addictions, which is a referral and information program of Catholic Charities of Steuben County. "You have to strike when the iron is hot … and try to do something about it."
The agency’s Steuben Prevention Coalition is one of 618 coalitions that are part of the Drug-Free Communities Support Program and receives grant funding from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to information at www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/drug-free-communities-support-program. Results from a national evaluation of those coalitions showed a more than 20 percent decrease in the use of alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs among high-school youths in the last 30 days in the Drug-Free Communities.
To continue this progress, every Drug-Free Community’s coalition has two goals, McCumiskey explained:
* Reduce alcohol and drug use among youths ages 12 to 18.
* Increase collaboration around this issue with community agencies and groups.
"We talk about the drug problem to anyone who will listen, and get other agencies and volunteers to get involved with our coalition issues," McCumiskey said.
In order to receive grant funding, each coalition must comprise representatives of 12 sectors, including health care, parents, youth organizations, schools, business, law enforcement and faith, according to information at http://1.usa.gov/1K672eU. Steuben County had first created a coalition in 1991 to increase awareness and prevent substance abuse among youths and adults. It included the Steuben Council on Addictions, Hornell Concern For Youth, Family Service Society and the county’s Community Services, according to information provided by McCumiskey.
Steuben County’s current Drug-Free Communities coalition has 60 members, since the program covers an area that is as big as Rhode Island and is home to 13 school districts, he said. Catholic Charities recently announced the hiring of an assistant program coordinator for the coalition, Kira Johnson.
Other coalitions may focus on a smaller areas, such as one city block in New York City, McCumiskey added.
"You get the most bang for your buck when drug prevention gets down to the grassroots community level," he remarked.
Steuben’s current Drug-Free Communities’ coalition began in 2009. That year, the coalition partnered with an already established one in Ontario County as a mentee for Drug-Free Communities. In 2013, Catholic Charities received a $125,000, five-year grant on its own to continue the coalition’s work, since Ontario County’s coalition had reached its 10-year limit of participation in the Drug-Free Communities program, McCumiskey said.
Currently, there also are Drug-Free Communities coalitions operating in Seneca County, Livingston County and Rochester, according to whitehouse.gov.
The coalitions do not run prevention programs but instead develop such prevention strategies as workshops for parents or training for educators on the signs of drug use that can be utilized by its members, McCumiskey said. But the coalition does run focus groups, conducts interviews with such key community people as police officers and analyzes data about substance abuse from hospitals, he added.
"We try to assess how much of a problem (addiction) is," McCumiskey said. "Everything is data driven."
Another major portion of the coalition’s work is conducting a survey every two years of students in grades 6, 8 and 10 in conjunction with participating schools. Those surveys have revealed that alcohol and marijuana are the biggest areas of concern for Steuben County’s coalition, he said.
For the survey that the coalition will conduct this year, students in grades 8, 10 and 12 will participate, he said, as some of the questions were not relatable for sixth-graders. And previous results were not providing a true picture of what’s happening with older students, McCumiskey added.
"That data (may) show more incidents of narcotic drug use," which has been the case in other areas, he noted.
But marijuana continues to pose a challenge for most areas, with all the national attention of medical marijuana and legalized recreational use in some states, McCumiskey said.
"One of our challenges with the coalition is try to educate the public, including students, that marijuana is not as safe and harmless as people think it is," he said.
Recent survey results also have shown a dramatic decline in the use of marijuana, tobacco and alcohol, even though the perception of harm posed by those substances also has dropped, McCumiskey said. The coalition has yet to determine what is causing that dichotomy.
But with New York’s legalization of medical marijuana, the coalition will closely monitor the situation in Steuben County, McCumiskey said.
"In every state that has legalized marijuana, for medical use or recreational use, student use has gone up," he said. "Hopefully, that won’t occur in New York state."