CAMDEN, Maine— Eight years ago, Camden-area teens were in crisis.
After an unprecedented string of suicides and accidental deaths rocked the community, adult leaders were searching for ways to help their young people and to try to ensure such a crisis would not happen again.
Then the school system was invited to take part in a national study called Communities That Care, which sought data on how effective communities could be in helping prevent youth substance abuse and other forms of delinquent behavior.
“We jumped on board,” school Superintendent Pat Hopkins said Wednesday. “I believed that prevention was the best way of addressing numerous risk factors.”
Hopkins’ belief has been borne out in data just released from the four-year trial which tracked 4,407 fifth-graders from 24 communities in Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Students who followed the Communities That Care program proved to be 32 percent less likely to begin using alcohol, 33 percent less likely to start smoking and 25 percent less likely to initiate “delinquent” behavior, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Results for students in the Five Town Communities That Care project, which serves Camden, Appleton, Hope, Rockport and Lincolnville, were in line with the national numbers. Additionally, eighth-graders in the area showed a 66 percent reduction in marijuana use after following the program.
“The climate has changed,” Hopkins said. “It’s a much more positive climate than we’ve seen in the past.”
Study participants talked up their good news Wednesday morning at a special virtual town meeting held at the Camden Opera House and connected through a live satellite feed to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. There, the national “drug czar,” R. Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and other leaders heard from several members of the midcoast contingent about Maine’s preventive success. Among the speakers were Camden Police Chief Phil Roberts, Hope Elementary School student Isaiah Backiel, 11, and Dalene Dutton, executive director of Five Town Communities That Care.
“Seeing the success of Communities That Care should give a lot of heart to a lot of people in the country,” Kerlikowske said.
The program works by identifying the risk factors in a particular community, implementing a plan, and then evaluating its success. Unlike the much-maligned 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, this prevention program has been subjected to a “rigorous, randomized trial,” according to Dr. David Hawkins, the study’s principal investigator.
“The model has been shown to have lasting effects through high school and beyond,” he said.
Using the Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey, which is given to students every two years by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, the Camden-area towns found that the particular risk factors for their youth were a low commitment to school, friends who engage in problem behaviors, family conflict and “laws and norms favorable to drug use.”
Old Town, which also was involved with the study, found that their youth shared the risk factors of low commitment to school, friends who engage in problem behaviors and a low perceived risk of drug use.
“They didn’t think that drugs would harm them,” said Diane Vatne, the executive director of Greater Old Town Communities That Care, which serves Alton, Bradley, Greenbush, Indian Island, Milford and Old Town.
Through a concentrated — and often community-based — effort, mentors and other adults created a plan to assist the youngsters. In Old Town, students received life skills training and intensive tutoring. It helped, said Vatne, who attended the meeting Wednesday in Camden.
“We were able to raise our commitment to school quite a lot,” she said.And midcoast students participated in the ongoing Skills, Training and Recognition, or STAR, program which challenged them to broaden their horizons. Students like 12-year-old Carly Dorsky, a seventh-grader at Appleton Elementary School, are challenging themselves with activities such as tennis, rock climbing and learning how to care for the animals at Aldermere Farm.
“I think it’s cool that we get to learn new skills,” Carly said.
Her dad, Jim Dorsky, agreed.
“I think it’s a great program. By starting at this age, when those risks come along, she’ll be a more confident person,” he said.
Though outside funding stopped when the study ended in 2008, community members are finding that the program — thanks to all the in-kind community donations — is relatively low-cost and effective. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, each dollar invested in research-based prevention saves $5 to $10 in juvenile justice and substance treatment costs, which could be an incentive for other towns to implement the Communities That Care model.
Camden Police Chief Phil Roberts said he has noticed a change.
“The attitude is much better and much more receptive,” Roberts said. “We don’t get the hostility we did a few years ago.”