MANATEE -- Local law enforcement agencies are keeping a lookout for underage people abusing alcohol and illegal substances. With the new Safe Teen Intervention Program, juveniles will have the choice of going to court or partaking in an education and intervention program.
Spearheaded about two years ago by Manatee High School Resource Officer Danny Bench of the Bradenton Police Department, the initiative was further developed by Steve Rinder, coordinator of dropout prevention and student intervention.
"I have a teenager and working in the high school with this age group got me thinking how to we help intervene with teens," Bench said.
With the help of Rita Chamberlain, associate director of the Manatee County Substance Abuse Coalition, the program is being funded by a four-year, $48,000 federal grant.
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School resource officers from Bradenton Police Department, Palmetto Police Department and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office will get out of the hallways work with a Holmes Beach police officer to patrol the streets once a month with intentions of identifying underage drinkers.
"The goal is not arrest," Rinder said. "The goal is intervention. The reason the school resource officers are doing this and not other street officers is the school resource officers are within the school district, and it's
easier to do follow-up with the kids."
School resources officers also have access to school records, unlike patrol officers, who cannot verify a student's name if they have no identification.
When a juvenile is caught drinking alcohol or doing drugs, their parents or guardian will be notified. The family can choose to complete a six-week Substance Abuse Family Education program to identify and discuss substance abuse and other peripheral issues instead of the child facing criminal charges. "The main part is it forces the parent to deal with the issues," Bench said. "It forces the parent to say, 'The reality is this is what my kid is doing,' and get everybody to recognize it."
By having school resource officers working the front lines, leaders are hopeful that other students will feel more comfortable in reporting a party to officers with whom they are familiar.
"I get kids who are either fearful or hesitant because their friends or family are doing some things that are risky and they don't know what to do," Rinder said. "I explain the difference between snitching and reporting. With snitching, the goal is to get somebody in trouble. With reporting, the goal is to get somebody help. If you identify it that way, many teens take a deep breath and consider what their goals are."
Although Manatee County's numbers have decreased since 2006, according to the Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, there is still work to do. "We've been going down six years, and we're better than the state (average)," Chamberlain said. "A couple of percentage points is a couple thousand kids. We're finding that our biggest gap is between middle and high school; When they take that leap there is a huge increase in usage and a big decrease in perception of harm."
Manatee County data from 2012 shows that 21.4 percent of middle and high school students who participated in the study had consumed alcohol within 30 days of the questionnaire; More than 11 percent admitted to binge drinking. Nearly 10 percent used marijuana, 6.2 percent smoked cigarettes and another 3.4 percent used synthetic marijuana.
"Prescription drug use is going down. Alcohol is ongoing. Adults aren't doing kids a favor by hosting a party, taking away car keys and giving them alcohol," Chamberlain said. "The issue that's raising its head right now is marijuana and synthetics."
Manatee County high school students perceive illegal use of prescription drugs and smoking one or more packs of cigarettes a day as a greater risk that regularly smoking marijuana or consuming alcohol daily.
"Many teens distinguish one set of drugs from another," Rinder said. "Alcohol, pot and tobacco won't harm you. Pills and cocaine are bad."
Officers have identified underage users in two of three patrols since the program started in November. Some families have already completed the program.
"I was particularly impressed with the student resistance; It was there, but not as bad as I thought it would be," Rinder said. "The parent willingness and participation was strong. We had some really good conversations."
The child's siblings, grandparents and other family members are welcome to the meetings. Students not referred through the new intervention program are encouraged to voluntarily attend.
"If parents are concerned and would like to participate, the welcome mat is out," said Rinder, who has helped more than 4,000 families through the SAFE program in the last decade. "I continue to be impressed with the positive outcomes and reconnection of communication within families. We have honest conversations about the facts."
Meetings are held 6-7:30 p.m. every Thursday at Manatee High School. For more information, Rinder can be reached at 941-714-7300 ext. 2011.
Anyone wishing to report a party with underage drinking or substance abuse is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 866-634-8477 (TIPS). Cash rewards are available.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.