Thursday, February 21, 2008

Roots of Change Coalition in The Woodlands and Montgomery County aiming to change the environment for alcohol consumption in teens

I attended a meeting of “The Coalition of Change” today. This organization’s mission is to empower Montgomery County with the tools to have a drug-free environment, especially for our youth. I was quite surprised at the progress made over the past three years in this organization. The coalition has not only been advancing their cause, but has regrouped and restructured their organization to strengthen their position to make a difference in our society. Three years ago I believed this effort would wither up and die, as there were personal conflicts within the organization. Now there seems to be valuable momentum and more hope for change with active participation and support by law enforcement officials.

Albert Corona, the head of the group, stated that there has not been a general meeting for a year, but the group has been active with restructuring and task prioritizing based on information gathered on the advice of certain expert professionals on this topic. The Phoenix House Grant funds the activities. “In recent years, Phoenix House has expanded its focus to provide prevention and education programs for Texas teenagers.” 1

Willis Police Chief James Nowak stated some sobering facts about Montgomery County on alcohol consumption and its consequences. We live in the 6th worse county, of the 254 counties in Texas, for vehicle accident deaths in 2006. 25% of the deaths in our county are under-aged (less than 21) and 45% of all accidents on the road are linked to alcohol. These statistics are ranked relative to the county populations statewide. The problems exist in all areas of the county. The Woodlands should not think it is exempt from these issues or statistics. It is in fact part of the problem.

There is also a general issue with law support here, prosecution and in the courts. T.A.B.C. and local law enforcement departments enforce the law. However, the case load is high and the ability to jail offenders is very time consuming, so often those who commit offenses, are not held fully accountable. A fine is easier to levy for an offender, but the T.A.B.C. prefers to jail offenders, such as those who sell to minors.

Take one particular instance for example. There is a store in the county that has seven violations recorded from stings. Yes, it is not normal for citizens to complain when a store sells alcohol to an under-aged youngster. Law enforcement must run stings to find the offenders. This one store has been stung 7 times and law enforcement does not understand how the place remains in business. It is an issue with licensing by the state and law enforcement needs to have an exceptional case to convince the state that there is a really good reason not to renew a license. There is a process being used now to shut this place of business down, but it is a hard road to follow. There are sufficient laws to prosecute offenders but getting the prosecution, as a priority in our courts, is difficult at best. There are many excuses, like reading tobacco age for sales instead of reading alcohol age, not reading the drivers license carefully and others that are used to combat prosecution. The T.A.B.C. along with other agencies, have completed 337 stings. The stings use young people who are obviously young, youths who show real ID’s, not fake ones, and who do not try to cover up their intent. There is a clear process manual, which is followed. In the immediate future, the sting manual will be supplemented with a process manual for stings on people who buy alcohol for teens. This is also illegal and will be prosecuted.

Sometimes the store employees (and sometimes the owners) just disregard the law. For example, cash registers often require the date of birth of the buyer. The employee just enters some fake date that will pass right through the register. So the owner can claim that he has provided the method to prevent the sale whereas the employee disregards the store policy.

The objective of this coalition group is clearly to engage more organizations and to focus on young teens so that we have an integrated approach to education. So the coalition of various organizations who protect children from abuse and tragedy can understand and participate in the reduction of alcohol consumption, knowing that bad situations are often connected to consumption. Sexual risk taking is much more prevalent with those who consume alcohol than those who do not, so organizations protecting children from under-aged sexual victimization need to help with the alcohol problems. This group is engaged in all of this, working for a much larger coalition to remove the risk of pregnancy and HIV as a result of the alcohol induced promiscuity in teens and educating various organizations and government bodies of the root cause of other related risks and issues.

“We must change the culture using strategies to reduce those components in our society which are threatening our children’s welfare.” 2 Many Hispanics, for example, believe the parents should be deciding whether their children drink or not. This is a cultural component that threatens children beyond the Hispanic community. Where does that lead? It leads to cultural influence. Not only does the public need to be educated in the law but in the reasons for compliance and the consequences for not being in compliance.

The environment itself is influential to produce more risk. Here in this county, we have 14.99 liquor licenses to every 1000 people. There are 700+ licenses granted in Montgomery County. The rest of the state averages 2.11 granted licenses per 1000. That is a huge breach of normalcy that we must contend with. Our culture needs to back off of our “need” for alcohol presence and availability. This group believes we must change the environment.

The next step this year for the coalition is to have a clear strategic plan to execute. That will be produced soon. Included in it will be a plan to form a better coalition with the judges of the county, with awareness presentations and discussions.

This could be an election issue. Ask the prosecutors and judges running for office this year to explain their positions on alcohol for minors.

1 Phoenix House Texas: http://www.phoenixhouse.org/Texas/
2 Oscar Williams, T.A.B.C., http://www.tabc.state.tx.us/
The statistics presented in this meeting were derived from research in various locations. For the sake of brevity, I am not including the list, but if someone wants additional resources on this subject, I will be glad to provide what I have.

1 comment:

Steph said...

We're talking about Big Lots over on TalkofTheWoodlands.com today - don't miss it!

TalkofTheWoodlands.com