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