For the past 30 years, kids at Pulaski Street School in Riverhead have been involved in an intensive two-year program where leaders from the community and high school students help them build the skills to help them make healthy choices about drugs and alcohol.
This month, the non-profit Riverhead Community Awareness Program, known in the school as CAP, received a major boost, when the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy awarded them $125,000 per year over the next five years to help lay the groundwork in the community beyond the school to keep kids from drinking and using prescription drugs.
“This is our first federal grant, which we’ll use to build on our community coalition. It’s focused on gathering sectors of the community to develop environmental strategies to decrease access to substances,” said CAP Executive Director Felicia Scocozza in an interview this week.
The coalition includes churches and counseling centers, business organizations, government agencies, the schools and colleges and Peconic Bay Medical Center, which last year sponsored Riverhead High School’s pre-prom festivities, which were aimed at keeping kids from drinking at the prom.
CAP decided to focus on alcohol and pills in its grant application because both have the potential to be deadly on the first use, said CAP’s community prevention specialist, Clare Lundberg.
“They pose a real, life-threatening danger, and these are areas that we can have an impact on,” said Ms. Scocozza. “With illegal drugs, we’re limited as a community to deal with it, because it is a law enforcement issue.”
Ms. Scocozza added that prescription drugs can serve as a gateway to heroin addiction, because heroin is actually less expensive than pills.
In expanding their mission beyond the school, CAP and its community coalition plan to work to reduce access to alcohol in the community, from pushing for alcohol-free zones at fairs and festivals to educating parents about Suffolk County’s social host law to educating servers at restaurants in strategies to avoid serving underage patrons.
Ms. Lundberg said the coalition’s success last year with the prom program helped expand the coalition, by making the prom fun without alcohol.
The school insisted that all students had to arrive at the prom on a Hampton Jitney bus instead of in limos, and CAP held a pre-prom reception with parents and students, with snacks, sunglass givaways, a red carpet and mock paparazzi taking all the students’ photographs before the festivities.
“People asked if there was any resistance, but we sold fifty more prom tickets last year,” said Ms. Lundberg. “The best thing was their families came to support them.”
“There were no alcohol-related incidents at the prom before or after,” said Ms. Scocozza. “We do have the support of the school for next year.”
CAP is now working on a handout for parents on how to offer a safe home for their teenagers, where there is no access to alcohol. They also want to educate high school seniors and college students who are over the age of 18 that if they provide alcohol to students who are under 21 they can also be prosecuted under the social host law.
“Parents are subject to almost as much peer pressure as high school students,” said Ms. Lundberg. “There’s an earlier propensity for drinking than for other drugs, because alcohol is available in the home.”
The CAP coalition is also looking to provide a secure drop box for people to dispose of their medications safely, without having to bring them in to a police department for disposal, where they have to leave their names and personal information with the police.
CAP plans to have student volunteers at the DEA’s next “take back day” for prescription drugs on Oct. 26, where they will interview people who drop off medications about their thoughts on the best methods for making it easy for people to dispose of prescription medications.
“Underage drinking is the biggest problem everywhere in the country,” said Ms. Scocozza. “It’s a hard issue because it’s legal for adults and they know the things they did when they were young. Now there are videos of binge drinking on YouTube and social media tends to glamorize it. It’s a different culture. There’s certainly more access to what it’s all about.”
“People associate us with our Pulaski Street program, but this is a way for us to really expand our brand as well,” she added of the new grant funding. “We can teach kids in the school but they live in the community. We can change the culture and the attitudes and the access.”