The Other 60 Percent

Colorado counties target teen drinking

Nineteen-year-old Chantel Chavez has more reason than most young people to avoid drugs and alcohol. Growing up, she watched drugs engulf her mother, though she didn’t know it at the time.

The Speak Now Colorado campaign gives parents tips for talking with their children about drinking. Photo courtesy Speak Now Colorado

“We didn’t understand why she was leaving,” said Chavez, a recent graduate of Westminster High School who is now attending Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “We just always knew our mom couldn’t be at things like our dad could.”

When she got to high school, there were times she was tempted to abuse alcohol the way some of her friends did. “There were a few of my friends, maybe five, who were really party people,” she said. “There was a lot of drinking, but I don’t think it was as crazy as some people thought it was.”

But Chavez found her passion and her focus in high school not in partying but rather in the Young Leaders Society of Adams County, a group dedicated to battling underage binge drinking, especially among Latino youth.

Chavez began participating in the organization’s fun activities like movie nights and potlucks. She also went to educational conferences and helped with community service events. She helped design a social marketing campaign geared to warn her classmates about the dangers of substance abuse.

Four counties targeted with grant money

The campaign, dubbed “I’m Going Places,” as well as the Young Leaders Society, is part of a wide-ranging effort to lower the rates of binge drinking among Colorado’s youth, particularly among Latino youth.

The project, called the Colorado Prevention Partnership for Success, is funded through a $2.3 million federal grant targeting the state’s four counties with the highest concentration of Latino youth – Denver, Adams, Weld and Pueblo.

Now in the fourth year of the five-year grant, the project has already seen some noteworthy progress. Based on statewide surveys, underage drinking in Colorado is falling, and the disparity in underage drinking rates between Latino youth and other youth is disappearing.

Chavez is one of those young people whose life might have been ever so much different if not for the support and motivation she got through the campaign. But there are others.

Underage drinking decreases in Colorado

Findings from the 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey show that alcohol use among high school students in the state has fallen from about 75 percent in 2005 to about 65 percent, and that use among Latino high schoolers is only fractionally higher.

Among middle school students, however, almost 40 percent of Latino students report having consumed alcohol at some point, a rate more than twice as high as that of white students. Binge drinking – defined as having five or more drinks in two hours – was reported by almost 1 in 10 Latino middle schoolers, while only negligible numbers of white students reported such heavy alcohol use. By the time they get to high school, binge drinking evens out to about 20 percent for all youth, regardless of ethnicity.

“We’re really trying to create an awareness that it’s more normal than not to refrain from using alcohol and drugs,” said Beckah Terlouw, project manager for the Adams County Prevention Partnership, which oversees the activities in the county. “Most young people do not habitually use. But students overestimate how many of their peers are using alcohol. Reality versus perception is huge. We want to empower young people to be comfortable saying no to these choices.”

In Adams County, the campaign involves partnering with the major school districts, as well as with community groups, to sponsor family nights and parent forums as a way to help parents who are struggling to know how to talk to their children about alcohol and drug use.

That 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado survey showed that fewer than half the state’s middle school students had had a conversation with their parents about alcohol in the past year.

“Just eating family meals together can significantly decrease children’s use of drugs and alcohol,” Terlouw said. “We know the economy is hard and schedules are hard, but being a place where families can come in and have a meal, where they don’t have to think about it, where activities are planned can be such a good thing. And parents can go home with new skills and tools.”

In Greeley, “make mine root beer”

In Weld County, the Weld County Prevention Partnership has supported everything from social norming campaigns in the schools to recruiting restaurants, bars and liquor stores to be more pro-active about not serving alcohol to minors.

“It’s a comprehensive approach. We’re doing a lot of things at once,” said Nomie Ketterling, coordinator of the program. “The idea is that we’re changing the environment.”.

In Weld County, changing the environment involves everything from making available t-shirts that say “Make mine root beer” to a graffiti mural project to ads, posters and newsletters. A website provides teens tips for talking to their parents about drugs and alcohol, and tips for parents who want to talk to their children about it.

The Strengthening Families program is a seven-session class in which families can do role-playing, watch videos and play games designed to reinforce the need to avoid underage drinking.

Focus on homecoming and prom activities

In Denver, the Department of Human Services has its Resource for Awareness and Prevention, which offers referrals to for parents and youth with substance abuse issues, education classes for families, tool kits for parents, community presentations and other efforts.

“One pamphlet we just created is “Know the Law,” which has information about underage drinking in Colorado,” said Jodi Lockhart, prevention coordinator. “There are so many parts of our program. We work with youth directly, and we do widespread messaging I the schools around high-risk times like Homecoming and prom.”

In Pueblo, the Pueblo Alliance for Healthy Teens and the Pueblo Alliance to Prevent Underage Drinking/Drugging is using social marketing, substance abuse prevention education and alcohol-free activities for youth to target that county’s underage drinking problem.

Statewide, the Speak Now Campaign aims at getting parents to have conversations about alcohol and drug use with their teen-age children, and offer guidelines for putting together a family plan for reducing or eliminating underage drinking.

“They’re all doing very good work,” said Stan Paprocki, community prevention program manager for the state’s Division of Behavioral Health, which oversees the federal grant. “And they’re all so very different.”

Colorado’s underage drinking laws

Most likely charge

  • The charge of “minor in possession” is the most common charge in the state when it comes to underage drinking
  • Any teen found with alcohol or suspected of consuming may face a charge of minor in possession
  • Possession or consumption of alcohol by a minor is only allowed if it happens on private property, with the property owner’s consent and under direct supervision of that minor’s parent or guardian

Possible sanctions

  • First offense for a minor in possession charge: Fine up to $250, up to 24 hours community service and a license revocation for three months if the minor fails to follow court-ordered instructions
  • Second offense: Fine up to $500, up to 24 hours community service, mandatory alcohol class and a license revocation for six months
  • Third offense or more: Three to 12 months imprisonment and/or $250 to $1,000 fine, mandatory alcohol class and a license revocation for a year

Source: Denver Resource for Awareness and Protection


‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”