By REID TUCKER
The Walton County Prevention Coalition hosted a meeting of the minds between representatives of community organizations and law enforcement agencies to discuss possible solutions to the problem of underage drinking.
Panel members at the town hall-style meeting, held Thursday, May 29, at the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood in DeFuniak Springs discussed what their respective organizations are already doing to prevent underage drinking and what they have in the works. City Marshal Mark Weeks and Lt. James Pitman of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office represented law enforcement, while COPE Center’s Director of Prevention Services Bryan Callahan and Mick Leatherwood, director of the local Boys & Girls Club branch, handled the community outreach side of the talks. This gathering of community stakeholders was designed to inform the public as to the fact that the underage consumption of alcohol is a much bigger problem in Walton County than is perhaps widely known or acknowledged.
“Obviously it does go on, and we’ve seen that here in our own county,” Weeks said, speaking for the DFSPD. “There are issues that go along with that, and here in DeFuniak we take [the issues] seriously.”
Though up-to-date Walton County data is not yet available from the Florida Department of Children and Families, the most recent applicable Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, which dates back to 2012, shows that nearly 27 percent of underage people surveyed in Walton County used alcohol “within the last 30 days.” The 2012 survey also shows that 14.7 percent of surveyed individuals aged 10-17 engaged in binge drinking, and both these figures are greater than the 2012 state averages of 24.6 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively. An up-to-date study is expected to be released by the Department of Children and Families later this year in accordance with its two-year timetable.
Weeks said plain old in-person peer pressure still plays a role in underage drinking, but online interactions by way of social media websites further exacerbates the problem. Pitman, who oversees the 17 deputies stationed as resource officers at schools across Walton County, agreed with Weeks’ assessment, pointing out the growing influence of Facebook, Instagram and others as being catalysts for negative outcomes as far as online bullying goes. Furthermore, Pitman and several members of the audience pointed out that the youth culture’s glamorization of excessive alcohol consumption as being a key factor in moving society more toward acceptance of underage drinking in spite of the consequences.
“We need to help these children understand the dangers and consequences involved with underage drinking, not just the legal side of it but what it does to them physically,” Pitman said. “It’s not like it was when we were kids. Binge drinking is huge. Growing up in this community, I never saw this type of atmosphere.”
However, there seems to be a silver lining, Pitman said. Though more than 700 individuals were arrested or issued notices to appear on underage drinking charges in Walton County charges over the course of the Spring Break season, he said the overwhelming majority of these cases did not involve local youths. Pitman took this as proof that efforts to get the message across to Walton County’s teens about the dangers of underage drinking are becoming more and more successful.
A large factor in that success are the in-school and after-school programs offered by organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast and the COPE Center, said Leatherwood, whose DeFuniak Springs club has seen an explosion in new membership in recent years. The Boys & Girls Club uses a holistic approach to reach out to its young members. By focusing on three priority outcome areas – academic success, character and citizenship and healthy lifestyle development – the Club teaches students develop the social and decision-making skills and healthy habits they need to achieve the goals they set for themselves.
“For 40 years, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast have been at the forefront of youth development, working with young people who need us most,” Leatherwood said in a prepared statement. “We have actively sought to enrich the lives of boys and girls whom other youth agencies have had difficulty reaching. We are dedicated to ensuring that our community’s children and teens have great access to quality programs and services that will enhance their lives and shape their futures.”
If the Boys & Girls Club aims to reach kids after school, the COPE Center’s STAR Program takes over in the classroom. The STAR Program serves 750 youth at Walton Middle School at Freeport Middle School using skills-based learning modules designed to teach kids the skills they need to and live up to their potential, Callahan said.
However, the STAR Program of today is “drastically smaller” than it was at the program’s height in 2005-2006, when it reached upward of 3,500 students, Callahan said. State level budget reductions had the effect of curtailing the availability of the program, limiting COPE’s ability to reach as many schools in the farther reaches of the county. However, Callahan said he and other members of his organization are actively looking into ways to get the program back into those classrooms.
“When you have kids that are successful then you have kids who are not using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs,” Callahan said. “Drug prevention is really about making kids successful and giving them the support they need to reach the goals they set for themselves. We’re all already doing a lot but there’s always more to be done.”
By REID TUCKER