Santa Barbara Aims to Knock Out Drug Abuse by 'Fighting Back'
Drugs and alcohol are easily available to many young people - and abstaining from them can be a tough challenge. In the past, families have often been left on their own to deal with the problem. But now social and health-care workers, teachers, police, and parents are banding together to fight drugs' pervasive influence. They're discovering - as they did in Santa Barbara, Calif. - that an energized community can turn a drug problem around.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF.
Room H-17 - basically ugly. But several old couches are strewn around. A few tables and chairs. Movie posters on the wall. Rock music rumbling. A hole in the wall where the clock used to be.Skip to next paragraph
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All conversations in this "drop-in center" at Dos Pueblos High School eventually get around to Scott Guttentag. If you respect and like Mr. Guttentag - and all the "at-risk" teens drifting in and out of H-17 do - you like Fighting Back.
Guttentag is one of nine Youth Service Specialists hired by Fighting Back, Santa Barbara's unique community collaboration. The objective is to confront and reduce - among youths and adults - rampant drug and alcohol abuse in this sunny, affluent, California town.
The lanky teen walking into H-17 to greet Guttentag is Joe Wallace, a senior at Dos Pueblos. Santa Barbara was no playground to him. Twisted by a drug overdose not too long ago, he was taken forcibly to a local hospital.
"I'd hit bottom," he says. "No place to go or sleep. In the hospital I assaulted a police officer and was chained and beaten by the police. When I woke up, my Dad was sitting there with me, and I didn't think he was real. Finally, it all came together and I said, 'What have I done?' "
What Joe and 54 other teens moving in and out of H-17 get from Guttentag is a high-energy advocate who cajoles, pushes, and befriends them away from drugs and alcohol. His litany, offered with humor and trust: Be responsible, study, think about what you are doing.
"Without Scott I would have dropped out of school," Joe says. "I used to have a 1.2 grade average, and now I have a 3.0. I can tell you that Scott has changed a lot of lives around here."
Guttentag delivers a straight message: "Until you experience the consequences of your choices, you won't change your behavior because you don't believe there is a problem."
Fighting Back started six years ago when substance abuse in metropolitan Santa Barbara - population 180,000 - had reached proportions close to a public-health crisis. "In the city of Santa Barbara alone," says Chief of Police Richard Breza, "nearly 15 percent of the population was being arrested because of alcohol or drugs."
A l991 state report concluded that ninth- and 11th-graders in Santa Barbara were using alcohol and cocaine at a weekly rate 30 percent higher than the state average.
And a local hospital said 82 percent of emergency room admissions after 10 p.m., including youths, were related to abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
About this time, the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse hired Penny Jenkins to be director. Mrs. Jenkins, who had lost a daughter to alcohol and suicide, knew that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., was looking to award $3 million grants to communities ready to combat drugs and alcohol.
If Santa Barbara could design a communitywide plan to attack the problem, a grant might be available. "We were advised to go to the people here who had the greatest influence over the community," she says of her effort to form a board of directors.
Jenkins did this by persuading a who's who of Santa Barbara to give time and resources to a community initiative. In the past, social agencies and institutions tended to operate independently. Now was the time to bring a fresh, collaborative approach to a corrosive problem. New links and programs were needed.