Sunday February 17, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- Alcoholic beverage servers in Pittsfield and adults who’d consider buying for underage youths be forewarned: The next young student you meet might teach you a lesson.

The Pittsfield Prevention Partnership (PPP) plans to step up one of its key youth-led programs to combat substance abuse and other risky behaviors -- its underage alcohol sales survey -- by doubling the number of surveys per year.

"We were doing this twice a year, but now it will be four times," said Karen Cole, coordinator of Youth Development at PPP and Berkshire United Way, the organization that oversees finances for the partnership.

With its federal funding now secure for several more years, Cole said the student volunteers who work to reduce risky behavior on the part of their peers will fan out more often to ask bartenders and package store clerks the big question: "Can I have a ..."

Cole said the alcohol purchase survey program is overseen by adults but undertaken by teams of two young-looking buyers just over the legal drinking age of 21 -- but obviously someone who should be asked for identification when purchasing alcoholic beverages.

After a training session, the teams of youths and their adult drivers spread around Pittsfield, and the youths visit as many as 60 establishments. City police and adults working with the youths know when the next event will be held, Cole said, "but we keep the date under wraps.


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She said the purchases, whether or not an ID is requested, are legal, which makes the survey different than a classic sting. And since the partnership -- composed of several community organizations, schools and municipal and law enforcement entities in the county -- began the surveys in 2009, almost all bar servers or store owners have "done the right thing," Cole said.

"The ones that say, ‘OK,’ get a red card," she added.

The card, which is handed to the alcohol server, says: "Be a Life Saver ... You’ve been caught ... not asking this young-looking legal age buyer for an ID. Next time, think twice and ask."

Those who do ask are given the green card -- thanking them for checking and entitling them to a free coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Since the surveys began in August 2009, from 79 percent to 92 percent of the establishments visited asked for ID over the course of eight surveys.

Cole said letters are sent afterward to the business owners, and a copy goes to the police department and the city Licensing Board.

If a server fails to ask for ID, the business owner is given a description of the person and advised to have all staff members attend TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) classes, which are funded in the county through the partnership.

Nancy Stoll of the United Way gave a presentation to the Licensing Board recently on the partnership programs and results of regular surveys of risky behavior among public school students in the county.

Stoll said that in alcohol purchase surveys, a number of establishments have failed to card on more than one occasion -- information Licensing Board members said could be useful in considering complaints to them concerning underage persons being served.

Other PPP initiatives include Shoulder Tap, in which teen volunteers working with an adult nearby ask people going into a participating package store to buy them beer -- then give out a red card listing the penalties for buying for underage youths when the person agrees; and the Sticker Shock program, in which youths place warning stickers against buying for underage persons on multipacks of beer at participating stores.

Cole said the overriding goal of PPP programs is to "bring down the risk factors," as highlighted in regular countywide student surveys, "and bring up protective factors," such as adult support systems and safe neighborhood environments.

The PPP formed nearly a decade ago in response to survey results that identified rates of youth alcohol and substance abuse and its links to crime, violence, academic failure and unemployment.

Through 2011, the PPP exceeded its goals of reducing rates of substance use 10 percent but some categories are still slightly above national averages, Cole said. The partnership set a goal of cutting usage by another 10 percent by 2017. 

The comprehensive needs assessment survey Berkshires students take every two years anonymously questions youth on topics like crime in their neighborhood, whether they have had sex, been pregnant, been struck by someone in a relationship; taken prescription drugs like OxyContin without; used alcohol, smoked cigarettes, used marijuana, cocaine or other illegal drugs; gambled, fasted or binge ate, attempt suicide, cut or otherwise injured yourself, been in a physical fight; been referred to a mental health professional, sold illegal drugs, stole something, been bullied, been teased because of race, disability or other factors.

Other questions attempt to gauge family or neighborhood situations for the student, along with social skills and behaviors and the availability or prevalence of guns.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien