Tackling underage alcohol abuse in East Palo Alto

*This was published on page 5 of the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of EPA Today.*

The results are in: East Palo Alto has a serious problem with underage alcohol use and abuse. This finding was presented to the East Palo Alto City Council at the special city council meeting that took place on July 28.

During the meeting, members of One East Palo Alto Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition (EPASAPC) shared their ongoing research about the underage use and abuse of alcohol in East Palo Alto. The group’s research started in 2007 and grew out of a collaborative partnership that involved One East Palo Alto, Free at Last, and El Concilio of San Mateo County.

With the assistance of the East Palo Alto Police Department, Gibson & Associates, and other community groups, EPASAPC began its survey to find out the truth about underage drinking in East Palo Alto.

“We knew we were tackling a big ticket issue,” said Dr. Faye McNair-Knox of EPASAPC.

According to Reverend Mary Frazier, the senior pastor at the Bread of Life Evangelistic Outreach Church, information about alcohol use was gathered from surveys as well as from focus groups and informational conversations with youth.

The survey found that many residents believe there’s a direct connection between alcohol abuse and high school dropout rates, violence, unemployment, and socio-economic problems.

“Our city cannot have a positive reputation because of this situation,” said Reverend Frazier before highlighting that this “negative reputation overshadows all the beauty that we see in our city and the positive attributes that we see in our city.”

Abraham Menor of Health RIGHT 360 presented charts that further demonstrated the results of the surveys conducted. The students were asked to provide their city or zip code in order to pull responses of only East Palo Alto residents. The results helped EPASAPC gain a better understanding of the student’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to alcohol.

The first set of results reflected the responses of only East Palo Alto residents from Ravenswood City School District (grade 7) and Sequoia Union High School District (grades 9 and 11) during the 2013-14 school year. Over 25% of East Palo Alto students claimed to have had their first drink in 9th grade–compared to the state of California at 20%. Even more shocking, over 5% of East Palo Alto resident students claimed to have had their first drink in 7th grade–again, a higher percentage than the state of California. The second set of results were based on surveys conducted on students attending non-traditional schools that focus on serving students who are challenged academically and/or socially such as Redwood High School, according to Menor. One chart demonstrated that almost 25% of 11th graders had had 1-2 days with one or more drinks in the last 30 days–significantly higher than West Contra Costa County and San Mateo County. In another chart, results demonstrated that almost 30% of East Palo Alto students in non-traditional schools claimed to have had 1-2 days of binge drinking in the last 30 days. Menor defined binge drinking as having had 5 or more drinks in one session. For comparison, San Mateo County’s percentage is only a little over 10%.

Commenting on these staggering results, Vice Mayor Rutherford said, “I really had an issue with the fact that those types of schools [nontraditional schools] are supposed to be schools that really help with a lot of the problems, but it seems like there’s a lot going on and issues aren’t being addressed.”

Rutherford expressed some concern about the surveys and wondered how accurate the information is. “I want to believe that everybody is honest and I want to believe that the questions are answered honestly,” she said.

Question about the surveys

Menor said that the results of the surveys were conducted during a single point in time. In his report, to the council, Menor said, “It is not a good idea to make cast-in-stone decisions based upon these data. The true value of the data will be over time, as we will be able to compare results in two years and see how responses of cohorts of students within EPA change and how that change mirrors or differs from other, similar communities.”

Nevertheless, to aid in the elimination of underage drinking in East Palo Alto, EPASAPC has begun working in several different ways, including creating a local youth program that allows students to learn more about the dangers of alcohol abuse and educating local merchants on the dangers of selling to minors.

Vei Finau, the Youth East Palo Alto Program coordinator, introduced several summer interns to the council members. The program provides substance abuse prevention information once a week at Menlo-Atherton High School and East Palo Alto Academy, teaching students how to make changes using economical strategies.

The interns who attended the meeting put together a video in which they interviewed several East Palo Alto residents. In the video, the students posed questions such as, “Do you think it’s easy for young people to access alcohol? What can be done to reduce the sale of alcohol to minors?” The answers given conveyed that most residents do believe that it’s fairly easy for minors to purchase alcohol from local vendors and that penalties should be imposed to those who sell to minors.

EPASAPC believes it has found one solution that could help restrict alcohol access to minors. Flores-Garcia spoke to the city council about EPASAPC’s recommendation to implement a Responsible Beverage Service Training Ordinance (RBST) for local alcohol merchants. “RBST is a best practice in environmental prevention initiatives that is strictly voluntary in the state of California,” said Flores-Garcia.

Because it’s currently voluntary, EPASAPC has urged City Council Members to approve a mandatory ordinance.

Flores-Garcia added that mandatory RBST has been linked to declines in access to alcohol for youths and has been found to be more effective in reducing sales to minors. Flores-Garcia explained that members of EPASAPC took the training before they approached the merchants to better understand what precautions should be taken when selling alcohol. After contacting several merchants, members of EPASAPC, along with East Palo Alto officers conducted a site visit.

“You can imagine the surprise when the group of people showed up to the vendors’ doors with the police officer. They were, of course, quite respectful…but not necessarily always happy when the police officers did come,” Flores-Garcia said. One common thing that Flores-Garcia said she heard from vendors was that they have been in business for many years (over 20 years in several cases), so they “already know what they’re doing.”

The training, however, served as a reminder of the policies. Some of them even missed some questions during the pre-test. “They were embarrassed and wanted to get it right,” said Flores-Garcia. She admits that it wasn’t easy for the vendors, but they will continue to build their relationships.

McNair-Knox said the group “expect[s] to continue the work because the problem that we have tackled–substance use and abuse in East Palo Alto–is a long standing concern and it’s not a problem that will be solved over night.”

The mayor thanked EPASAPC for its report, but said that “tonight we’re just listening.” before suggesting that they also “tap into this hip hop generation that sensationalizes the use of drugs and alcohol.”

This fight to decrease underage drinking in East Palo Alto is far from over for EPASAPC. This ongoing issue will most likely have to be revisited in again by the council this fall.

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