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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Until the Fighting Back committee formed, most of us recognized the drug problem here, but we didn't have a sense of ownership about it," says Peter MacDougall, president of Santa Barbara City College and chairman of the Fighting Back Steering Committee. "We thought the courts were taking care of it, or the police. We now know the severe negative effects it has on individuals and a community."

After nearly two years of planning, Santa Barbara was awarded a grant, along with 13 other cities. Now, three years into implementation, Fighting Back initiatives touch almost all corners of the community - in hospitals, courts, jails, schools and businesses. Youth programs, from interns to antigang efforts, are emphasized as the most cost-effective way to divert young people from drug and alcohol abuse. Further funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is pending.

Many of Fighting Back's nearly two dozen initiatives have changed how the city responds to these problems:

*At Cottage Hospital, what used to be a Fighting Back early-response team for chemically dependent patients, has become a comprehensive, institutionalized health-care approach.

*A Substance Abuse Treatment Court operates now with a "holistic" approach. After an individual is arrested for a drug-related offense, a court-sanctioned intake team can recommend a treatment program for the judge to approve. Santa Barbara's drug court is one of only five nationwide.

*A gang suppression program in conjunction with the police and district attorney provides a coordinated curriculum in elementary schools for high-risk youth, including parent training.

*A mentoring program at the elementary school level now involves 60 volunteers.

*A summer conference hosted nearly 100 teens in a setting where they created a multicultural society with values, flags, and an Olympics.

*Youth specialists, like Guttentag, also train students in peer mediation and stress management. "The specialists are really successful," says J.R. Richards, the principal of Santa Barbara High School. "If we [should] lose them, then I think we would realize just how effective they have been."

That became apparent in the early stages of Fighting Back, when a few schools balked, denying abuse problems were critical. "Our goal was to get things started ... not to run the programs," says Jenkins. "The schools are very supportive and pay a portion of youth-worker salaries."

"Scott is a master at talking with kids," says Mike Couch, principal of Dos Pueblos. "I've never seen it before, but kids actually refer themselves to Fighting Back."

Guttentag teaches the alcohol and drug diversion classes for teens suspended from regular school, checks on truancy, and runs the school leadership classes. Of the 66 troubled youths in his charge over the past several years, only two have been resuspended.

"Scott has given me a sense of responsibility," says Danelle McWeeney, a senior. "Before I didn't care, but he has made me realize I have to graduate if I'm going to get anywhere."

"I've learned a lot," says Tony Villa, also a senior. "You come here and you know you have to stop messing around."

Guttentag, who has a degree in psychology, points out that more than 90 percent of the kids who come to diversion classes are the children of alcoholics and drug addicts. "That makes them different," he says. "It can cause them to be learning disabled. We try to match them with the best teachers and classes, the ones they want, so their chances of succeeding increase.

"Some of the parents have basically handed their kids over to the school. It explains why the kids are struggling. The more parents are involved, the more the kid succeeds."

While Guttentag and other youth specialists nurture teens on a one-to-one basis, another Fighting Back activity is the most popular social event of the year, attracting 8,000 youths.

"I'm Free for the Weekend," held annually, begins with students pledging to stay alcohol- and drug-free for three days. A small purple wristband entitles a student to a host of free and discounted services and entertainment.

This year some 150 Santa Barbara businesses chipped in. Bus rides were free. So was the zoo. The objective? To show that weekends are okay without drugs and alcohol. Try it all week. The program has been so successful that Fighting Back hopes to offer the weekend more frequently. "It gives an excuse to those who don't really want to use drugs, but are pressured into doing drugs," says Shadi Jahangir, a student leader from San Marcos High School. "Now they can say no, not this weekend. People see the weekend as a positive thing. 'I'm Free for The Weekend' says don't do drugs, and they don't. It's a moral thing. They know they have to live with the fact that they signed the pledge."

At San Marcos High School, youth specialist Jennifer Chew oversees many efforts to reach teens, including Friday Night Live, a popular on-campus club started by Ms. Chew that plans drug- and alcohol-free activities and provides safe rides to teens who may have been drinking. This year it was voted club of the year.

"Drugs are everywhere in their lives," says Chew, "and the perception is that everybody does drugs. That is a hard thing for them to get past. Some say, 'Everybody I know drinks,' and it is very hard not to fall into that. People don't give teens enough credit. I have high expectations for them. Even the kids from good families with money come in here crying. We have all these programs for at-risk kids, and the truth is that every teen is at risk these days."

Although it is difficult to connect improved county statistical data solely to Fighting Back efforts, there has been a drop in alcohol and cocaine use since 1991. Then the two drugs were being used at a rate 30 percent higher than the state average, and marijuana use was four times the state average.

Now, five years later, a Santa Barbara County study concludes that alcohol and cocaine consumption are a little below the state average, and marijuana use is equal to the state average.

Not all community groups have linked with Fighting Back. Because a majority of children in elementary schools are Latino, Latino leaders in Santa Barbara wanted Fighting Back to launch programs at that level.

"A lot of Latino leaders in the community have washed their hands of Fighting Back because of this," says Frank Banales, executive director of Zona Seca, an alcohol and drug treatment program. "Elementary schools should be the target, but I still think Fighting Back is doing good work because the problems are so big."

Jenkins wants more Fighting Back presence in elementary schools: "The intent of the foundation grant was that as the money ran out, the community would start paying for the programs themselves. For some programs that has happened, and others it hasn't."

After 25 years in Santa Barbara, Chief of Police Richard Breza says, "Fighting Back has pulled elements of the community together like I've never seen here before, and we are seeing a down trend in the statistics for drugs and alcohol."

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