Santa Cruz County’s united effort turns the curve on teen alcohol use:
Together for Youth/Unidos Para Nuestros Jovenes

See also: 2.12 How do we identify what works to improve conditions of well-being?

Until three years ago, teen alcohol and drug use  was out of control in Santa Cruz County, California.  A resort area known for its laid-back attitudes, beach parties, redwood groves, and a University of California campus, the Santa Cruz community was shocked by the alcohol and drug deaths of  several teenagers in 1997.

Statistics gathered from national and community-wide surveys painted a disturbing picture:

  • Eighty percent of Santa Cruz’s 11th grade students reported alcohol
    use during 1996, and 57% became drunk. Comparable figures for alcohol use
    statewide and nationally were 74% (among 11th graders in 1993) and 51%
    (among 12th graders in 1993).
  • Fifty-four percent of Santa Cruz’s 11th grade students reported
    marijuana use during 1996, compared to 40% (among 11th graders in 1993) statewide and 16% nationally (among 12th graders in 1993).
  • Alcohol was the drug of choice in Santa Cruz; In 1996, 13.6 was the
    average age for getting drunk the first time.
  • A 1995 survey revealed that 48% of sixth graders and 95% of 11th
    graders considered it “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain alcohol; “buy
    stings” conducted by the Santa Cruz Police Department consistently showed that minors could buy alcohol more than 50% of the time without being asked for an ID. Moreover, the per capita rate of alcohol outlets in Santa Cruz County was 34% higher than the statewide average in 1995.
  • Alcohol-involved offenses account for 20% of total juvenile
    misdemeanor arrests, nearly three times higher than the statewide rate.
    Among persons age 20 or younger, the DUI arrest rate in the county is nearly
    double the state rate.
  • Surveys measured a high tolerance among adults for marijuana use.

For a picture of the Santa Cruz data and more information click on:

In 1997, a community coalition of 110 agencies, organizations and individuals, including the schools, County’services, the sheriff and four city police departments, business, public officials, non-profit organizations, parents and students came together under the leadership of the United Way, to change this picture.  The coalition, Together for Youth/Unidos Para Nuestros Jovenes, committed to develop and implement a comprehensive, carefully researched plan for alcohol and other drug prevention.  They identified outcomes and targets for youth and the community

  • Youth will be involved with their community.
  • Youth will use fewer drugs and alcohol; use will decrease to the national average by the year 2000.
  • Community tolerance for youth alcohol and drug use will decrease.
  • Quality of life indicators for youth will improve by 20% by 2000.
  • Underage purchases of alcohol will be reduced by 20%.

The plan recommended strategies in seven areas:

Increase knowledge and raise awareness about alcohol and other drugs, through public service announcements, monthly newspaper columns on alcohol and drug issues, media events, etc.

Build skills and competencies of individuals and families, through youth development leadership training and community services, and parent education

Increase involvement in alcohol and drug-free alternatives such as youth drop-in centers; community, family oriented cultural events, and  Friday Night Live.

Increase access to services through early identification, intervention and referrals through school student assistance programs, Home Visiting and family Preservation/Family Support programs

Change social policies, including city ordinances addressing the concentration of and proliferation of alcohol outlets, and banning alcohol on local beaches; and discouraging retail sales and promotion of malt liquor and fortified wines;

Enforce regulations, ordinances and laws regarding drug-free workplaces, school behavior policies, etc, through development of community leaders, quick and effective response by criminal justice and human services agencies and decoy/sting operations.

Increase the community’s ability and commitment to respond to alcohol and other drug problems, through developing, strengthening and supporting community coalitions working on prevention activities.

To determine the effectiveness of theses activities and track their outcomes, The Together for Youth partners collected data from three primary sources. Community tolerance, norms and attitudes on drugs, alcohol, as well as parental satisfaction with school substance abuse prevention programs and afterschool activities were tracked through Santa Cruz County’s Community Assessment Project which since 1994 has tracked a broad range of quality of life indicators in five areas:  health, education, economy, social environment and public safety.  Information about student alcohol and other drug use was gathered by the Santa Cruz County Youth survey, administered to a random sample of more than 4000 Santa Cruz County’students in grades six, eight, nine and eleven in 1994, 1996 and 1998. (Sixth graders were not surveyed in 1998)  Finally, police reports were examined for records of arrests and citations for alcohol and other drug offenses.

Since 1997, many elements of the plan have been enacted:

Open containers of alcohol have been banned on all beaches.

A shoulder tap ordinance has been passed,  making it illegal for minors to ask adults to buy alcohol for them.

Two new teen centers are operating..

Two new teen residential treatment centers for alcohol and other drugs have opened.

In 1998, the county Civil Grand Jury made teen alcohol and drug use a top priority, identifying service gaps and  recommending that the Together for Youth plan be adopted and supported by all local jurisdictions.

Schools have increased services related to alcohol and drug prevention

A top-level county-wide Policy Panel on Youth Access to Alcohol developed policy recommendations for  the community, schools, law enforcement and criminal justice, land use and zoning and merchant practices.

Over $1 million dollars has been raised to support activities in the plan.

Some critical indicators are improving.  The percent of 11th graders using alcohol in the last 12 months, while still above the state and national rates,  fell from 80 percent in 1994 to 76% in 1998-99; the overall juvenile crime rate fell 4.5% during that same period, although juvenile drug arrests increased. Parent satisfaction with afterschool activities has increased from 78.3% to 90.2%.  Satisfaction with school substance abuse prevention programs is mixed,  with higher satisfaction at the middle school level, and lower satisfaction at the high school level.

United Way and Together for Youth leaders report several lessons from this ongoing effort to turn the curve on teen alcohol use:

  • Agencies working together can change a community
  • It is critical to get all partners involved early, and  maintain strong, diverse leadership
  • Its not just about money; community involvement and organization is crucial.
  • Data presents significant challenges, from choosing appropriate indicators to collecting unbiased, accurate data.
MarcSanta Cruz County’s united effort turns the curve on teen alcohol use