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Jan. 23, 2012
LIBERAL "If they can vote and they can go to war, then they can sure enough drink."
Elizabeth Stamper hears that a lot in her line of work. She's the point person in Seward County for programs to prevent underage drinking.
"There are a lot of parents who feel that when a child reaches 18, (drinking) is a rite of passage," said Stamper, who administers a federal grant aimed at reducing underage drinking. "Unfortunately that kind of outlook isn't, 'Let's have a glass of wine at dinner.' It's more, 'Let's get a keg and get ’em drunk.' And then the perception is, ‘If they're at my house, everybody's safe.’ But the reality is — what alcohol does to you and what it sets you up for in life — why would you want that for your children?"
Since 2008, Stamper has used $425,000 to change perceptions about underage drinking in Liberal and the rest of the county. The money was part of a $10 million federal prevention grant that has been funneled for the past three years through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to programs in 14 Kansas counties.
Among other things, the grant in Seward County has paid for campaigns in English and Spanish to teach parents about the legal consequences of providing alcohol to minors. It also has funded school-based prevention efforts and helped pay police for increased retail compliance checks and overtime for patrolling on nights like prom and homecoming.
Sgt. Gene Ward of the Seward County Sheriff’s Department said the grant has helped the department discourage underage drinking.
"I've been here 14 years, and the only reason we've been able to do DUI check lanes is because of the grant," Ward said. "We weren't able to do them before, and our budget is being cut. So I'm sure if they cut the grant funding out, we won't be able to do them at all."
The funding for all 14 county programs dries up in June. Sarah Fischer, prevention coordinator at SRS, said the grants from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration were not renewed at the federal level.
"Funding is going away, but ongoing prevention efforts will be targeted at ways that we can sustain and support some of the things that have been put in place through this process. It's not like our plan is to leave them high and dry by any means," Fischer said. "We have been encouraging communities to build sustainability plans and look at ways that they can sustain what works."
Fischer said underage alcohol use in the grant counties dropped from 28.9 percent in 2009 to 25.4 percent in 2011, as measured by the annual Kansas Communities That Care survey. The statewide survey asks middle and high school students dozens of questions, including how often they drink and how they get alcohol.
SRS initially used the survey results to determine which counties would receive the prevention grants.
Bridging the funding gap
Retail compliance checks are among the things that have worked best to reduce underage drinking in Seward County, Stamper said. Police work with underage customers who attempt to buy alcohol in gas stations, restaurants and liquor stores.
She said before the SRS grant, 11 percent of students who drink reported being able to buy alcohol, ranking Seward as the worst county in the state.
"So we looked at our law enforcement and looked at things we could provide that they weren't able to do, because obviously in this day and age funds are low," she said.
Since stepping up compliance checks, she said, half as many students — less than the state average of 5 percent — say they're able to buy alcohol in the county.
Sustaining programs beyond the grant
With the grant coming to an end, Stamper’s coalition has been looking for other ways to fund the programs.
She thinks they will be able to continue most of the school- and community-based programs "one way or another.” But she isn’t sure if it will be possible to keep paying for stepped-up police enforcement, although the group will continue working with police at some level.
"The SRS grant made the connections with law enforcement and schools possible," Stamper said. "That's where the sustainability comes in. It's not necessarily that we have the next big grant coming in, it's that we have a community behind us. I can honestly say after this three-and-a-half-year period, that's exactly where we're at. Our connection with the school districts is outstanding. Before this grant, it was nonexistent."