A focused effort on prevention

Published 3:01 pm Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bill Spitzer is ready to put more than two decades of experience as a police officer and community leader to use in a preventative way in Mower County.

Spitzer, 53, started in mid-August as the planning and implementation coordinator for a five-year grant to focus on creating, promoting and sustaining effective approaches to reducing alcohol and drug use, especially opioid and prescription drugs.

“In a nutshell, what we do is we talk a lot about substance abuse prevention in the community in the schools that we are awarded the grant,” Spitzer said.

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The Parenting Resource Center, with the help of the Austin Drug Taskforce, received the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division grant earlier this year to address substance abuse issues in the community.

As grant coordinator, Spitzer will work at Austin High School with the goal of building and maintaining collaborative efforts with the school, Austin Area Drug Task force, coalition members and community stakeholders. He’ll also work with students in grades 7-12 to help bring awareness to alcohol and drug use within the schools and provide assessment, capacity building, strategic planning, program and strategy implementation and evaluation.

They may provide support for some of the after prom or homecoming events, or other community events, as a way of supporting substance-free youth.

“The goal is to reduce underage drinking or reduce underage smoking, that type of thing — basically substance abuse prevention,” Spitzer said.

One key goal of the grant is to identify positive community norms, which they identify through community surveys with questions ranging from questions on beliefs with alcohol, whether it’s important to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol and more.

“Just talking about what their beliefs are in a number of different avenues,” Spitzer said.

For example, Spitzer said the feedback doesn’t look at how many people are using drugs, it focuses on the number of people who aren’t using drugs or alcohol.

After St. Charles got the same grant, it showed 93 percent of parents talked to their youth about alcohol and other substances, so Spitzer said that gave parents the knowledge that most other parents agreed.

“It kind of builds the community relationship of knowing what your neighbor does, what your fellow students do,” Spitzer said.

Surveying will probably start sometime in winter.

The project will also include a collaboration of local coalition sectors. Areas include businesses, schools, law enforcement and various organizations of representation and leadership.

Spitzer emphasized it’s not about him, it’s about community involvement, especially with parents and students.

“My job is to just kind of guide the ship so to speak,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer was the mayor of St. Charles for 10 years and worked as a deputy for the Winona County Sheriff’s Office for 24 years and was the D.A.R.E. officer for 17 of those years, teaching fifth, eighth and 10th grades.

He retired in 2014 and started doing consulting work. After his years of D.A.R.E., Spitzer said he loved working with students, school staff and the community, and the grant work in Austin will do all three.

As the D.A.R.E. officer, he was in the classroom everyday, where with this grant he will be in more of a supportive role to the existing programming in the classroom.

Before coming to Austin, Spitzer worked with the Whitewater Country Coalition’s PNI grant near St. Charles, and he enjoyed the things they were working on there. But he worked on that grant when it was at the end of its grant program.

The Whitewater Country Coalition reduced underage consumption by 62 percent, according to Spitzer.

“We were one of the highest improvement coalitions that we had in the state, which is something that we’re pretty proud of,” he said. “That’s quite an accomplishment.”

But after joining that coalition toward its end, Spitzer is happy to start at the beginning of Austin’s grant program.

“This will be a great opportunity for me to work in the community,” Spitzer said.

Toward the end of the grant, the focus switches to marketing the positive community messages.

“It’s just keeping a lot of these things in the limelight so to speak,” Spitzer said.

However, Spitzer said they’ll need to emphasize sustainability starting today. Since this is a one-time, five-year grant, communities need to plan for how to keep the momentum going after the grant period.

Spitzer noted the five years go by quickly so they need to focus on ways they can continue the work after.

Even after the success of the Whitewater Country Coalition, it applied for a Drug-Free community grants, but it was one of 200 communities applying for 70 grants and it did not receive on. Coalition leaders were seeking a Blandin Foundation support and other community means to keep the program going.

Spitzer still lives in St. Charles and while he’ll be commuting, Spitzer plans to spend much time in the community. Spitzer’s office will be based in Austin High School, but he plans to reach out to Pacelli Catholic schools too.

Spitzer can be reached at bill.spitzer@austin.k12.mn.us.