When four middle school students in Gloucester, Massachusetts, decided they had seen enough cigarette smoking among their friends, they turned to the Gloucester Prevention Network (GPN), a local prevention group that had been working in their school. Together with GPN, the teens developed a citywide petition effort to outlaw cigarette vending machines. The following year, the Gloucester city council enacted the petition, removing the city’s most accessible cigarette outlets for underage smokers.
After a 15-year-old Gloucester boy was killed by a young drunk driver, the GPN worked closely with the local newspaper to develop a year-long public awareness campaign on the influence of alcohol abuse in the community. “Message in a Bottle” highlighted the role alcohol played in many local car crashes and crimes, and resulted in a significant increase in referrals to substance abuse clinics in the city.
Meanwhile, GPN took its alcohol awareness campaign statewide, spearheading a legislative effort to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in Massachusetts from 1.0 to .08. A citizens group from Gloucester testified at legislative hearings and advocated for the change. Ultimately a statewide bill was passed, named for the Gloucester boy who had been killed the year before.
Across the country today, there are close to 4,000 local coalitions like the GPN working to reduce substance abuse in their schools and communities. “They don’t necessarily have big budgets,” says EDC/HHD’s Michael Rosati, “but they are doing important work.” Rosati is director of the Northeast Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies (CAPT), one of six federally funded regional resource centers that support community groups, schools, and state and local agencies in their efforts to identify, implement, and share effective programs to reduce alcohol and drug abuse among young people. CAPT works to bridge what is known about effective substance abuse prevention with what is actually being practiced in schools and towns across the Northeast.
But what does good prevention practice look like at the school and community level? “Prevention programs are most effective when they’re part of a comprehensive policy that takes into account the entire school or community environment,” says Rosati. “Like the Gloucester effort, communities and schools need to employ multiple strategies in multiple settings. Many times our role is to broaden the focus. People tend to concentrate on one or two programs that may be effective with one group, rather than reaching across the community.”
In its work to improve prevention services available at the local level, CAPT employs a two-pronged approach, collaborating both with policymakers at the state level who set standards for funding prevention programs and with the local prevention and youth program staff who ultimately implement the programs. Through regional conferences, face-to-face trainings, and an active website, CAPT staff facilitate the sharing of information, resources, and expertise among prevention specialists across the Northeast.
In fact, sharing successful strategies is a centerpiece of the CAPT approach, according to Sheila Whelan, chief of prevention for Rhode Island. As a follow-up to a three-day conference on building statewide collaborative efforts, CAPT staff provided a day of technical assistance tailored for prevention leaders in Rhode Island, Maine, and Pennsylvania-the only three states in the Northeast region that had not yet won state incentive grants for prevention work.
“CAPT invited us up for an entire day,” says Whelan. “Staff provided us with access to state-of-the-art information and equipment, and they facilitated an afternoon-long discussion with our colleagues in states that had already won incentive grants. The Massachusetts people came in person, and representatives from the other states joined us by conference call. They gave us advice on how to make a strong application-real nuts-and-bolts stuff. They advised us on issues like, How do you get your governor on board? How do you get an advisory board in place? What are the other political considerations? Only state people can talk to other state people about things like this. This is what regional technical assistance is all about; for me, it crystallized what CAPT can really do.”
Last year, Jack Vondras, director of the Cambridge Prevention Coalition, called on CAPT to provide some specialized training on social marketing strategies for his board of directors: “We were getting ready to initiate a campaign to reduce third-party sales-you know, Uncle Bernie goes to the liquor store for the teens and picks up a couple of six packs for the weekend. We asked Mike [Rosati] to present to our board on how social marketing strategies can change attitudes and behaviors. It was very helpful in getting the board behind the effort.”
In addition to receiving services from CAPT, Vondras lends his own expertise to local prevention groups through the CAPT network: “I talk to other local groups about how these programs actually operate-what works, what doesn’t. We’re a long-standing coalition with a lot under our belt-we’ve had success with several different science-based models. So I present to other coalitions on things like how to actually implement a science-based program, or how to hire an evaluator.”
CAPT staff are currently leading several trainings for local practitioners on how to use Web-based technologies for research and data collection. As state and local agencies increasingly adopt model prevention programs, they are in an ideal position to collect information on program effectiveness. This data will play a critical role in assessing prevention programs as they are replicated and adapted in diverse communities and settings, contributing to the growing knowledge base of effective substance abuse prevention strategies.
Originally published on September 1, 2001