Teens in La Plata County have more tools to prepare them for success than they did seven years ago, and it may be helping to drive down underage drinking and other risky behaviors.
During the 2006-07 school year, 36 percent of students in sixth through 12th grades reported using alcohol. Last school year, 19 percent reported drinking, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado survey.
Celebrating Healthy Communities Coalition, a local substance-abuse prevention group, attributes part of this drop in alcohol use to a communitywide effort among many groups in town who work with youths.
Rather than focusing on a negative messaging, such as the nationwide “Just say no” to drugs campaign, the coalition set out to encourage the 40 developmental assets that can help them thrive and decrease the chance they will try risky behaviors. These assets cover a variety of character traits including restraint, a sense of purpose and motivation to do well in school.
“The more assets you have, the more healthy, caring and responsible person you can be,” said Pat Senecal, coalition director.
The most recent survey across about 1,000 La Plata County teenagers in sixth through 12th grades in all of the school districts showed students report having more developmental assets.
In the 2014-15 school year, students reported having an average of 21.9 of the 40 assets. Seven years ago, the average was about 19.
“To set a goal like that for a prevention coalition and reach it was thrilling,” said Lauren Patterson, who does program planning and evaluation for the coalition.
Boosting the average number of assets up to at least 21 is key because research shows once a student reaches that number of assets, risky behaviors drastically decrease.
As local teens age, the number of assets they say they experience steadily declines as they have to make their own choices and big decisions.
“I think you just see more challenging years for teens,” Senecal said.
Training role models
After the initial survey was completed seven years ago, the coalition found a dearth of role models, with only 25 percent of those surveyed saying they believed their parents and other adults modeled positive and responsible behavior. The latest survey showed about 37 percent of teens saw adults modeling positive behavior.
“Training adults in our community to be asset-builders was the pillar of the campaign,” Patterson said.
The coalition started giving out awards to great role models in the community and training those working with youths. For example, they trained people working for the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County, Kids’ Camp, Keys to High School Success and the La Plata Family Center.
Chayse Romero helped embed the 40 assets into Kids’ Camp, the Durango School District 9-R after-school program and found it helped her add some versatility to her programming. But she said some of the assets are intuitive.
“I realized that we, those who work in the realm of positive youth development, typically base our beliefs and actions off of the developmental assets without consciously realizing it,” she said. “We put a high emphasis on positive peer influence, creative activities and reading for pleasure.”
Teens teaching teens
While both the use of tobacco and alcohol has declined over the past seven years, the use of marijuana has stayed fairly level. About 16 percent of students reported using marijuana in 2006-07, and last school year, 14 percent of students reporting smoking it.
“Marijuana is obviously a big deal in our community,” said Cody Goss, coalition coordinator.
To help address this, the coalition hired teenage interns to help design a marijuana-education campaign during the summer, she said.
The group challenged the teens to put a positive spin on their campaign and showed them how fear-based approaches fall short.
The teens came up with marijuana messaging such as the tagline “Are you clouding your future?” The coalition would like to work with local school districts to implement its messaging.
The coalition wanted to hire teenagers to design the campaign to ensure it would be relevant. It also helped show teenagers that the community values their opinions, Goss said.
Last year, only 31 percent of teenagers in the county felt like adults in the community value them, and it is one of the areas the coalition would like to focus on in the future. But it wasn’t a hollow gesture.
“We were just blown away by the maturity and insight,” she said of the teens’ ideas.