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Vashon Island task force tries to find ‘hot spots’ for underage drinking
In a continued effort to reduce underage drinking on the Island, the Vashon Healthy Community Network is working to identify the public places where minors drink the most and make it more difficult for them to do so.
Luke McQuillin, the project coordinator for the network’s Drug Free Communities Coalition who is heading up the effort, said that steps to curb drinking at popular hangouts — such as installing more lighting or heightening police patrols at the spots — could, over time, change the common perception that underage drinking is tolerated on Vashon.
“There’s a 91 percent perception from 12th graders that if they drank on Island they would not get caught by police,” he said.
Before action can be taken, though, popular drinking spots must be identified, McQuillin said. After gathering information from public officials, business owners and residents throughout the Island, the Healthy Community Network has pinpointed several “hot spots,” or places where the community perceives minors often gather to drink.
However, perception isn’t always reality, McQuillin said. “We can’t act on hearsay, so we try to get the facts and see if people’s perceptions are true.”
He hopes to get the facts by enlisting volunteers to physically observe the perceived hot spots and record what they see throughout the coming year. Initially, observers will focus on areas in town such as the Village Green, the bench by the Vashon Pharmacy and the woods behind Ober Park. Future areas of focus could include KVI Beach, Mukai Pond or Point Robinson Park.
McQuillin emphasized that volunteers would not approach individuals or record identifying information but simply observe from a distance.
“It’s not about name taking or who did what, it’s about the activity that’s going on there,” he said.
How the coalition proceeds will depend on what observers report. It’s possible, McQuillin said, that perceived hot spots may be found to be problem free. Or, he said, volunteers may report drug deals or marijuana use, information that can be passed on to the King County Sheriff’s Department or used by the network at a different time.
“Our primary goal in this prong of our focus is underage drinking,” he said.
The network also doesn’t want the effort to have the effect of harassing homeless people, some of whom hang out in the same areas that the network has identified as possible hot spots. As a result, they’ve pulled in Nancy Vanderpool of the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness to help ensure homeless Islanders don’t feel targeted by the effort.
Once problem spots are identified with hard data, the network could move forward in a number of ways. Though they have yet to reach that point in their planning, McQuillin imagines the network may join forces with other Vashon organizations — such as the Vashon Park District, the sheriff’s department or businesses near confirmed hot spots — to make changes that would discourage drinking. The areas, for example, could be better lit or monitored more closely by the police. Land-use policies could be changed to affect use of the surrounding areas, or neighborhoods could set up community watch programs.
“What we are starting to say to the community and to the kids is that we see what’s going on and we’re taking steps to try to reduce that. … Those are all little things that start saying we as a community don’t stand for this,” McQuillin said.
The idea isn’t a new one, he said. The approach is a well-honed undertaking — a multi-faceted effort to deter crime through changes in the physical environment. Called “crime prevention through environmental design” or CPED, it has been practiced in communities across the country since the 1970s and much-hailed in books and articles about urban renewal and community development.
Claudia Gross Shader, the volunteer chair of the Healthy Community Network, said she has read up on CPED and believes the principles behind it could be used to make an impact on the Island. Gross Shader says studies have shown certain changes in a community’s appearance, as well as the policies governing physical spaces, have resulted in lower crime rates in those communities.
“By making those kinds of changes to the larger physical environment and the policy environment on Vashon, we have a pretty good idea that that will affect a change in youth behavior,” she said.
The effort is being funded by a 10-year federal drug-free communities grant that the Healthy Community Network received last year.
“In the communities where they have funded grants to promote these changes, there is significant decrease in drug and alcohol use,” Gross Shader said.
Gross Shader and McQuillin are are looking to one authority in CPED for advice on how Vashon can implement its principles once hot spots are identified. Michelle Bennett, the police chief in Maple Valley, has taught classes on CPED for over a decade and has used the principles to address crime in her own jurisdiction. For example, when crime became an issue at a local skatepark, bushes were trimmed back to make the park more visible from the road.
Bennett will act as an adviser to the Healthy Community Network as it begins to implement the same ideas on Vashon.
“It’s a passion of mine; it’s what we do here in the city of Maple Valley,” she said. “If I can use any of that knowledge to address the issues that Vashon is experiencing, that would be great.”
McQuillin said he and the Healthy Community Network realize that changing community norms won’t be easy and will take time, but he considers the observations a positive step towards change.
“We’re not looking it as a one-year turnaround and everything will be rosy,” he said.
What McQuillin does know is that the efforts can’t get under way without the help of volunteers who are willing to do initial observations.
“We can’t do it without volunteers. ... It’s really the community trying to improve and the community members who are benefitting.”
The Drug Free Communities Coalition needs several volunteers to observe and record data at perceived hot spots. Shifts are no more than two and a half hours, but volunteers can work as long and as often as they are comfortable. For more information or to volunteer, contact Luke McQuillin at 463-5511 or LMcQuillin@vyfs.org.