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Efforts seek to combat ND's culture of drinking

Brian Hall has one theory about why underage drinking is so prevalent in North Dakota. "In North Dakota, before they have a gas station, they have a bar," said the North Dakota State University junior.

Brian Hall has one theory about why underage drinking is so prevalent in North Dakota.

"In North Dakota, before they have a gas station, they have a bar," said the North Dakota State University junior. "I'd say that's why it is so common: because it's everywhere."

State and local officials agree the culture of drinking in the state makes it difficult to change attitudes about underage drinking.

They point to a number of reasons why that culture exists.

Some mention the isolation of the state and the mindset that "there's nothing to do." Others point to a time when certain states, including Minnesota, had legal drinking ages of 18 and 19. Therefore, some people believe since they drank at that age, teens today should also be able to.

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North Dakota's small communities also make it easier for youths to find someone to buy them alcohol. Students in rural towns generally know everyone who graduated a few years before them, and a tradition is for 21-year-olds to buy booze for younger friends.

Children also see parents drinking at street dances, baseball games, fairs and graduation parties, leaving them to see drinking as part of having fun, others say.

Wahpeton, N.D., Police Chief Scott Thorsteinson said the societal norm of drinking was also around during his parents' generation.

"I'm a baby boomer. The generation before us, it didn't matter how much you drank, as long as you got out the door to work," Thorsteinson said. "If you were able to go out and provide for your family, you didn't have a problem. That's not necessarily the case, in my view."

The changing view of alcohol and its possible consequences - some deadly, as recent college deaths have shown - are leading more in the state to speak up and take a stand against underage drinking.

The following looks at state, local and educational efforts to combat what they see as a serious problem:

State efforts

In the past five years, the state Department of Human Services has spent

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$8.4 million in federal funding to combat substance abuse and underage drinking, said JoAnne Hoesel, director of the state's Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division. The money was divided among law enforcement agencies, community education efforts and state prevention coordinators.

Corey Ernst, the coordinator for six counties in eastern North Dakota, uses her funding for several projects. A new program will involve college athletes going into schools to talk to kids about alcohol.

Last year, Ernst worked with several agencies to create a media campaign urging parents to talk to kids about underage drinking.

Funding is also used to bring in speakers, create pamphlets and presentations, and respond to other requests for help.

In addition to the federal aid, the North Dakota Legislature allocated $100,000 last session for prevention programs aimed at children and parents across the state.

The state Department of Human Services plans to use the results of a recent alcohol attitudes survey to shape its future strategies.

"We know that there's a significant number of individuals in the state that need more information," Hoesel said. "We need to make it real to them, that this isn't just something that happens in other communities, to other people, to other families. This is impacting their community."

Local efforts

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Robyn Litke sees her job as an opportunity to prevent senseless deaths and injuries.

The coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition of the Red River Valley in Fargo works on a variety of projects in hopes of making a difference.

"Until we have zero fatalities on our roadways or zero deaths due to binge drinking and underage drinking, I think I'll be extremely passionate about this," she said.

Examples of the coalition's work include:

- Server training classes that discuss carding, spotting fake IDs and the consequences of knowingly serving minors.

- Victim impact panels that allow DUI offenders to hear from families affected by drunken drivers.

- Alcohol compliance checks to make sure liquor establishments aren't providing alcohol to minors.

- Minors and law enforcement officials putting stickers on alcohol in liquor stores to warn adults about buying alcohol for minors.

Education

Litke and the coalition also do projects geared at students, such as providing the Class Action curriculum to area schools. This allows high school students to learn about the legal process and alcohol.

Litke also works with North Dakota State University to provide late-night alternative activities on campus. Club NDSU simulates a night club experience. About 1,000 students attended the event in August, Litke said.

Laura Oster-Aaland, director of Orientation and Student Success at NDSU, thinks educational efforts to warn students about the dangers of drinking are working.

Students are more aware of what alcohol poisoning is and its symptoms, she said. She also thinks recent legislation to combat power hours has made an impact on 21st birthday binge drinking.

At the high school level, educators have changed their teaching strategy from vocabulary and statistics to a more interactive approach, said Moorhead High School health teacher Kay Peterson.

Students do role-playing and discuss the possible consequences of drinking. They also do writing exercises, listen to guest speakers and watch videos.

"The Nancy Reagan 'Just Say No' thing doesn't work," Peterson said. "They have to know why they're saying no."

In Wahpeton, Thorsteinson said officers go to the high school every spring before prom to talk about alcohol. Mock car crashes and drunken-driving simulations are also used as teaching techniques for students.

In the past generation, drunken driving has become less tolerated due to Mothers Against Drunk Driving bringing attention to the issue, he said. He believes change in attitudes about underage drinking will happen, too, but not overnight.

"I think it's going to take a generation. It means a lot of people suffering or dying unnecessarily," he said. "(But) if we keep plugging away and don't get discouraged, I know we can make a difference."

Youth projects receive funding

The Governor's Prevention Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol received $100,000 from the Legislature for the 2007-09 biennium.

The money was designated to support these projects:

- Casselton Youth Task Force: Implementation of "Guiding Good Choices" for parents of children in fourth through eighth grades and Project Alert, which uses teen leaders for students in sixth and seventh grades.

- United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck: Implementation of Circle of Youth Dream Catcher at Theodore Jamerson Elementary School. The project is geared toward fourth through sixth grades.

The objectives are to provide youths with prevention-based topics infused with Native American culture, provide prevention-based activities and provide youths and parents with community prevention strategies.

- Northern Lights Youth Services Inc. of Hillsboro: Implementation of Reality Check program by training at least 120 high school students to provide prevention lessons to at least 1,500 elementary students. It also includes a parental component.

- West Dakota Parent and Family Resource Center, Dickinson: Implementation of programs called Project Northland and Slick Tracy Home Team, which are geared toward sixth-graders and their parents. Another program, the Incredible Years, provides parenting education.

- Sunrise Youth Bureau, Dickinson: Implementation of About Protecting You/Protecting Me. The program is for elementary children and aims to reach them before they fully shape their attitudes and opinions about alcohol use by youths.

- Safe Communities Coalition, Grand Forks: Implementation of Keep a Clear Mind, a drug education program for elementary children and their parents.

Source: JoAnne Hoesel, North Dakota Department of Human Services

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