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Santa Monica, Malibu High School Juniors Out-drink Their Counterparts in the StateHeading

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 4, 2015 -- High-School juniors in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District binge drink, get “very drunk” or get sick from drinking at rates that far outdistance their counterparts in other California school districts, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The California Health Kids Survey found more than one in four of the juniors who answered the questionnaire had binged on alcohol in the last 30 days during the time the report was conducted by the SMMUSD in the 2013-2014 school year.

By comparison, 16 percent of the students from Los Angeles Unified School District had engaged in binge drinking. In Santa Barbara Unified School District, 20 percent had done the same. In the San Francisco School District, the number was 10 percent, the report found.

Prepared for the California Department of Education, the survey showed SMMUSD juniors also out-drank their counterparts in other ways.

Forty percent said they’d had at least one alcoholic drink in the last 30 days, compared to 26 percent of those surveyed in Los Angeles, 31 percent in Santa Barbara and just 18 percent in San Francisco, the report found.

Nearly half said they’d had alcohol to drink on four or more occasions during their lives.  At Los Angeles Unified, 36 percent made the same statement; in Santa Barbara, it was 37 percent and San Francisco, 25 percent.

Meanwhile, 12 percent of the local juniors said they had been “very drunk” or sick from drinking seven or more times, the survey found.

And half said alcohol was “very easy” to get.

District was not immediately available for comment. But school board member Oscar de la Torre said he wasn’t sure how to interpret the high numbers.

“It would be interesting to see if they correlate with absences,” de la Torre said. 
He said he remembered the parties he went to, back in his Santa Monica High School days, always included alcohol.

De la Torre said he didn’t know whether the problem is getting worse, or parents are becoming more aware of the adverse impacts. But he said there “needs to be a shift in the entire community in how seriously underage drinking is taken.”

He also said the survey shows that underage drinking can hit home with any socioeconomic group.

“Even the wealthier districts are not immune from the problem of substance abuse,” de la Torre said. “It’s easy to find someone to buy alcohol for you. Kids who are savvy know how to get alcohol.”

The survey results gave pause to others as well.

 “Underage drinking is a national problem, but it’s concerning that SMMUSD’s numbers are consistently higher than other California school districts across every measure, from lifetime use of alcohol, to past 30-day use to ease of access,” Trisha Roth, a 15-year Santa Monica resident, pediatrician and chairperson of Substance Abuse for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement.

Experts and others agreed that SMMUSD’s high numbers reflex a larger national problem of underage drinking. But some said the problem locally is probably heightened, in part, by the sheer number of outlets selling alcohol – an outgrowth of the district being home to so much tourism.

Santa Monica alone has 39 licensed bars, restaurants and stores selling alcohol per square mile – or more than nine times L.A. County’s average of four outlets per square mile, said Sarah Blanch, manager of the Westside Impact Project, part of a coalition of community groups grappling with the underage-drinking issue.

“We’re looking to reduce access to retail outlets like liquor stores and markets,” Blanch said.

Santa Monica police conduct rolling sting operations that target underage drinking, she noted. One is the “Decoy Shoulder Tap” operation, which zeros in on adults who act as proxies to buy alcohol for minors who solicit them outside licensed outlets.

In addition, the police department’s “Minor Decoy” program uses supervised adults under the age of 20 – usually police academy cadets – as decoys attempting to buy alcohol. Both programs start with an education program for those businesses selling alcohol.

 The goal is to aim for prevention first, but the programs also prompt retailers to think twice before taking a chance on selling to a minor.

Still, Blanch said an even greater source of underage drinking are social occasions like house parties, where adults either aren’t present or are there but not aware of the potential dangers, like an increasing likelihood of fighting and drinking and driving.

She said her organization sent out 4,500 mailers to households with children between the ages of 12 to 17 and to 18 to 24 year olds warning both age groups that enforcement is underway of laws against underage drinking,
Blanch said some parents still think it’s safer to host a party (with alcohol) for  youngsters ” than to have them drinking somewhere else.

“The reality is those parties can create a dangerous environment for young people,” Blanch said.  “If you host an underage drinking party, you’ll be held accountable. The goal is to create an environment that limits or reduces access to alcohol.”

Blanch said tactics do exist for reducing youthful access to alcohol at home parties.  Social host ordinances levy an administrative fine against the hosts of underage drinking parties. She said such laws have been started in many major metropolitan areas, and that research shows the laws may act as deterrents.

An evaluation of the Ventura County law, for instance, concluded that the youths there showed a decline in 30-day usage rates as well as party sizes.

She said the Westside Impact Project is now evaluating whether such a law would work in Santa Monica.

“It might make a difference for Santa Monica,” she said. “Our Project’s only goal is to keep Santa Monica’s youth as safe and healthy as possible.”

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