Underage drinking in parks -- what a PA coalition did

From CADCA's "Coalitions Online"


October 30, 2008

Pennsylvania Coalition Conducts Environmental Scan to Stop Substance Abuse in Outdoor Areas

Reading, Pa. is generally a quiet suburban community, but on summer nights its vast protected parks and recreational areas become a hub for underage drinking and drug use. To get to the bottom of the problem, the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse conducted a comprehensive environmental scan of their community with the help of local youth.

Reading has a long history of drinking and drug use in the conservation lands throughout the community, which consist of parks and other areas owned by the city. That, coupled with numerous complaints by local residents about these areas, indicated that something had to be done.

“Reading Police Department logged 40 calls for service to these locations, and despite the police’s best efforts to stop drug and alcohol use in these areas, the activity continued,” explained Erica McNamara, Director of the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse. “The environmental scan was an opportunity to understand why the police weren’t able to prevent this and what could be done to help.”

An environmental scan is a useful assessment method coalitions can use to gather visible information on local conditions surrounding alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Reading’s environmental scan was led by youth coalition leaders, who traveled to “hot spots” in the community, where law enforcement had received numerous complaints from nearby residents. At each location, they took note of the types of signage and lighting in the area, took pictures of any drug or alcohol paraphernalia they saw and observed the condition that the site was in. Youth also took note of ideas that came to mind for improving enforcement of the area. “For example, they looked at whether there was signage saying it’s a violation to have alcohol on the property or against trespassing,” McNamara explained. “If not, then that could be a physical design recommendation that we would provide to the city.” Teens also identified whether there were any items, such as plastic cups or used fire pits, indicating that there was a party at that location. They found everything from empty beer cans and cups to used needles.

So far, the coalition has conducted two scans—one during winter and one during summer so they could compare what they found between the two seasons.Based on their scans, the coalition was able to make a number of recommendations to law enforcement, local conservation groups and local government agencies, such as improving signage so that rules and regulations are clearer, charging civil violations for trespassing on the protected land, increasing lighting in local parks and launching public information campaigns that educate residents about the impact that these activities have on the environment and local habitat.

McNamara said the scan helped the coalition understand why the police had a hard time monitoring activities in outdoor areas. “Our youth realized once they were in these parks how difficult it would be to monitor what was going on by foot since the areas are so vast,” she noted. As a result of the scan, police now dedicate more time and resources to patrolling the conservation lands and they now use mountain bikes to patrol the parks and have increased their efforts during the spring, summer and fall months, when there is more activity. The coalition is now working on new PSAs to educate parents and other adults in the area about what’s going on in the conservation lands, and on what they can do to help stop it.

“Now, we incorporate what we learned into all of our strategies and we’re working with law enforcement to identify ways to prevent this from happening in the future,” McNamara said, noting that they will conduct environmental scans every six months to track the progress of their efforts.

For information about how to conduct an environmental scan, read The Coalition Impact: Environmental Prevention Strategies, a publication developed by CADCA’s National Coalition Institute. Additional information is available in a 2006 issue of Research Into Action, a newsletter also developed by CADCA’s National Coalition Institute.