Posted February 19, 2008 Atlanta
Communications & Marketing
Contact Robert Nesmith
As the GT SMART (Students Managing Alcohol Risk at Tech) program completes its final year, director Marsha Brinkley stays busy, gearing up for several remaining initiatives. Her two main objectives remain starting up the parental outreach program and finding 'institutional homes' for GT SMART's successful initiatives.
Tech is one of 10 campuses selected to participate in the American Medical Association-managed A Matter of Degree (AMOD) project, funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The goal is to develop a customizable, universally applicable model for altering the environment to modify negative behaviors, as well as educating both the campus and surrounding community on the harms caused by these behaviors. This particular program targets underage and high-risk alcohol consumption.
"Social norming works through advertising, messages and programs to reach individuals and groups," Brinkley said. "The AMOD project researched the development and utilization of environmental changes to modify negative behaviors. Examples would include legislative changes, police enforcement and changes in the advertising messages companies send regarding alcohol products."
Of the 10 campuses chosen, Tech is the only urban-area community. "As such, we had very different challenges," Brinkley said. And as one of the last campuses to join the program (in 1999), Tech is one of the last still going. The AMOD plan was originally five years in length, but a four-year extension was granted in 2004. Funding supports the current program until Aug. 31.
"For the first three years, everything was focused on campus activities," Brinkley said. To meet the grant's requirements of engaging the community, GT SMART in 2002 conducted a quality-of-life survey on 600 Atlanta residents. The purpose was to determine what type of interventions would best address the community's concerns. Another aspect of the intervention development process included the formation of committees and task forces, which included civic and business leaders, as well as Tech faculty, staff and students.
These committees worked with elected officials to review and revise some of the local ordinances. And as community members learned of some business owners' practices, changes to and enforcement of laws governing alcohol sales were welcomed.
Other established outreach programs include free online alcohol server training and an anonymous tip line for people to report businesses suspected of operating outside the law, either by selling to minors or those already intoxicated.
"While 911 is not always perceived as being anonymous, our tip line is," she says. "At the beep, callers are instructed to give the name of the business, what illegal activity is suspected and the business location. Callers are reminded that they need not give their names. Information is then sent to the police, and is investigated at the discretion of the police department." In the tip line's first year, Atlanta Police issued a record number of non-compliance tickets. Brinkley credits Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington with putting more officers into the alcohol compliance unit. As businesses took the situation seriously, the number of citations have since tapered off.
The free online program-Responsible Alcohol Sales & Server Training (RASS)-was developed for alcohol licensees and their employees. Brinkley says the module is the first online, interactive program in the state. Successful completion of RASS, which takes roughly two hours overall, includes two tests. "If you don't pass, you can take [them] again-but the questions change," Brinkley said.
Through data gathered in user surveys, Brinkley says the program 'has proven to be a valuable tool for learning state laws and empowering people to do their jobs well.' When successfully completed, the course provides a certificate, which, in turn, makes employees more marketable.
In fall 2007, Athens/Clarke County mandated alcohol server training, and the chief of police approved the RASS program. Brinkley says RASS is now in 18 counties and 223 establishments, and more than 2,300 people in the alcohol-service industry have completed the program.
Fall semester also kicked off the parent outreach initiative with the start of GT SMART's lecture series. In the first, the speaker made a presentation on pharmacology and drinking, as parents-and students-may not be aware of medicinal interaction with alcohol.
On Jan. 31, Texans Standing Tall Executive Director Nicole Holt presents 'Alcohol Marketing and Youth' showing how ads and TV spots are aimed at young people. "We, as adults, miss these messages," Brinkley said. GT SMART is working on getting the rights to podcast this presentation to reach parents. "Our students come from so many states, not to mention countries." In February, there will be a presentation of a program made possible by The Sam Spady Foundation, which tells the story of Spady, a 19-year-old college student who died of alcohol poisoning. (Because of rights issues, this presentation will not be podcast.) All presentations are open to the public.
The full parental outreach initiative, including an online component, is still under development. Tech is partnering with the University of Minnesota to survey incoming students' parents on their beliefs about students' attitudes toward alcohol. In 2006, Tech began using AlcholEdu to collect data from incoming freshmen about their attitudes toward alcohol, which will be paired with the parents' information.
Brinkley says that parents' experiences with alcohol in college is very different from today. "[The thought is] they did it, and they turned out all right," she said. "But it's a much more dangerous world than when they were in college," she said, referring to date-rape drugs and other hazards confronting college students today.
One overarching challenge of GT SMART has been in overcoming its perception.
"We push responsibility [for those of legal age], not temperance," Brinkley said. "We do stress not drinking until it's legal. We're not here for a 'dry' campus or taking away fun. We are here to promote safety and responsibility.
"Nobody seems to teach young people how to safely drink when they're old enough,' she said. The outreach and other presentations are designed to teach parents how to approach the subject with their kids. "Every year, we have several students who need medical attention [because of drinking]," she said. "The past few years, we have received more calls for help, so we feel our message is getting out."
While these new initiatives are important, they are only one priority for Brinkley as the program winds down. "Right now we're working to institutionalize programs that have been successful," Brinkley said, specifically mentioning the RASS, tip-line and student programs. "We're finding 'homes' for them, either at Tech or off-campus."
Some are garnering international attention from other educational institutions from around the globe. Last August, Brinkley presented 'Effective Strategies to Reduce High-Risk Drinking Among College Students and Residents in an Urban Environment' as a case study during a round table conference at the University of Oxford. This opportunity, she said, came out of an outreach with the president of the University of Dublin. "We're seeing that what we've produced can be initiated in other countries," she said. Her case study will be published by the Oxford University Press.
Prior to Brinkley's arrival at Tech in 2002, she worked for Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell's office, where-among her other duties-she was named the city's liaison to the program after its inception. GT SMART is part of the Office of the Dean of Students.
"I think the main lessons learned from developing the model were [along with] the components of information and education, the two keys are legislation and enforcement," Brinkley said. "If you don't have both, things won't change."