Stepping Up to what?
note: Due to the age of this report, some of the links are now probably
dead. Due to possible copyright issues, I have not reproduced the
originals; however, I can provide that documentation upon request. Go
to my contact page
and email me if you want to verify the existence of any of these
December 5, 2003
Most UI students and Iowa City residents are familiar with the Stepping Up
Project, a coalition formed to advocate policy changes to reduce
students' binge drinking; however, most are probably not familiar with
their methodology, or precisely what changes they have brought about in
the six years of their existence. In this piece, I will attempt to
summarize some of what I've learned about this coalition; follow the
links to view my documentation.
Most of the media coverage has referred to this coalition as the
Stepping Up Project, or simply Stepping Up; for purposes of brevity, I
will be using an acronym. The name "Stepping Up Project" yields an
acronym suggestive of the friendly street greeting, "SUP." However,
it is a misnomer to refer to a group of people as a "project." Stepping
Up is often referred to as a "coalition," a better term for a group.
For the purposes of this article, if I refer to the project (i.e.,
a body of work), I shall use the acronym SUP (Stepping Up Project); if
I refer to the group of people involved in the project, I shall use
the apt acronym SUC (Stepping Up Coalition). Sorry, I had to get that
out of my system.
SUC is well known for relentlessly lobbying the IC City Council to
curtail drink specials, raise the entrance age to bars, and enact
nuisance ordinances; but how else are they changing policy in Iowa
City? While doing research for my position on the Johnson County Jail
Space and Services Task Force, I encountered information suggesting
that more was going on than was being reported. The first point of
concern was a 39% spike in alcohol related jail bookings from fiscal
year '97 to fiscal year '98, accompanied by a 79% increase in drug
related bookings at the Johnson County jail. The vast majority of
the increase was for public intox; the vast majority of the drug
bookings were for simple possession. In FY '99, alcohol bookings shot
up again. Since alcohol and drug related bookings were already much
higher per capita than any other jurisdiction in the state, this
obviously points to a radical change in policy; someone must have lit a
pretty big fire under law enforcement's butt. What was the impetus for
While searching for something else, I ran into an old UI press release about the formation of SUC
that provided a strong clue. The document was dated April 01, 1997,
just a few months prior to the beginning of fiscal year 1998, the year
of the huge spike in drug and alcohol related bookings. Also relevant
fact that every major player in local law enforcement had been
appointed to SUC's executive or steering committees. Hmmm. Do you
suppose that SUC could have been responsible for this spike? No other
change in the environment at the time could account for this.
I was interviewed at length by Michael Antonucci for his article in the
October 2002 issue of Little Village on the crackdown on students (Welcome
Back Students... Does Iowa City hate you?), in which I attributed
the change in climate to SUC's efforts. SUC figured prominently in the
article, which raised their hackles a bit. Antonucci CCd me in on a
email conversation between himself, LV editor Todd Kimm, and UI VP of
Relations and SUC member Steve Parrott. I took the opportunity to
Parrott with my observation that SUC was responsible for this dramatic
increase in arrests; he completely ignored me. Antonucci invited SUC to
partake in a debate, and was likewise ignored.
SUC's public face may not want to trumpet their responsibility for
promoting punitive consequences (and apparently doesn't acknowledge the
existence of people like me), but when speaking with likeminded folks,
their story changes considerably. I recently discovered documents on
the website for "A Matter of Degree Policy Initiative,"
the AMA project sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,
through which SUP receives its funding. A lengthy section of this report deals with SUC's
efforts. Even if one could write off the spike in jail bookings as
coincidence, SUC seems proud of its role in the 56% increase in PAULA
citations from 2001 to 2002:
"...in Iowa City the local police department is the only
agency looking at bar compliance with underage drinking laws. Stepping
Up's pressure, multiple-year consideration of regulatory ordinances by
the city council, significant media coverage and the involvement of the
parents of Iowa students have led the police department to embrace this
"...The police department credits Stepping Up for its support in the
current enhanced enforcement, according to Sergeant (Troy)
Kelsay: We get support for our efforts from the rest of the
coalition and the individual people that make up that coalition. It's
been positive for
Lest this be seen as the result of a confluence of disparate
influences, it should be noted that SUC is responsible not only for the
direct "pressure" they exerted on the ICPD, but all of the other
pressure as well; this case study makes it clear that SUC's pressure
on the Council, their media advocacy campaign, and alarmist messages to
parents of UI students was the impetus for these other factors. SUC
orchestrated the entire thing.
Overall, this case study gives a glowing account of how SUC has changed
the community's "mindscape." Congratulations are in order, one might
suppose, but have their efforts actually reduced student drinking? Not
according to their resident expert, professor Peter Nathan, in this June 30, 2003 AP article:
"'Despite all these efforts ... or maybe because of them ...
students are drinking as much as ever,' Nathan said. 'And they're
a little more than ever.'"
As a psychologist, Nathan cannot be unaware of the fact that a
ham-handed authoritarian approach often produces the opposite of the
desired change in behavior, and his statement seems to imply just that.
Indeed, when you look at the sum of what SUC has accomplished, the only
effect has been a dramatic increase in the number of students in
with the law. SUC may have increased community awareness of student
but only, it seems, to garner support for punishing students for it.
prevailing messages to students have been either condescending,
ineffective, or just plain silly. This doesn't seem to be working.
Why would a well funded, well educated group with so many resources
focus primarily on punitive measures that clearly don't work? In the
preface of the AMOD report, we see evidence that we are being used
as lab rats in a "test" of the efficacy of a particular authoritarian
approach (the "environmental management model," which seeks to change
behavior through coercive and manipulative "policy and enforcement
"The A Matter of Degree (AMOD) Advocacy Initiative was a two-year
project designed by (the American Medical Association's) National
Program Office (NPO) staff members Lisa Erk, Richard Yoast and Sandra
Hoover, with the assistance of a national technical resource group. The
Advocacy Initiative's goal was to help the ten campus-community
partnerships of AMOD more effectively test the environmental management
model to prevent high-risk drinking among college students. This model
seeks to alter the physical, social and economic environments that
influence student drinking decisions through policy and enforcement
measures. Four of the ten grantees were chosen to receive sustained,
on-site technical assistance and training to broaden coalition members'
understanding of the model and expand their capacity to achieve its
Sweet. Thank the American Medical Association and their sugar
daddy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for this wonderful
opportunity to become unwilling subjects in this grand experiment in
social engineering. Thanks also to the all the pillars of our community
who shoved it down our throats.
Now, what about this "technical assistance"?
Technical assistance was provided by a stealth public relations outfit
called Pan American Services (PAS); this is probably not the
same company that will come up as the top result in a Google search,
though there's no info on what this company actually does. The "Pan
Services" in question is based in Bozeman, Montana, and appears to be
an offshoot of James Baker's Institute for Public Strategies (not to be confused
with former Secretary of State James Baker).
According to the case study, PAS provided the coalition with the
Assistance in developing a strategic plan to support
Drafting of media materials such as op-eds and letters to the editor??!
This is mentioned three other times in the document:
Recommendation on strengthening project linkage to the community to
identify and increase support for policy objectives
Training and workshops on media advocacy, working within a political
system and spokesperson training
Identification of media opportunities and the drafting of media
materials such as op-eds and letters to the editor
Development of a strategic plan, talking points, spokesperson
preparation and other details in support of coalition participation in
state and local hearings
Fulfillment of requests to provide research to support policy passage
on the following topics: relationship between outlet density and crime,
zoning and alcohol outlets, economic impact of 21- plus service
restriction, and impact of price specials
"Julie Phye described the results of PAS's technical
'They were great in helping us write opinion pieces for the
Assistance with writing is one thing; but why should papers be wasting
ink on letters about a local issue written by some company in Montana?
If this isn't downright unethical, it certainly doesn't inspire much
confidence that this coalition of some of our most influential, highly
educated community leaders can't even write their own opinion pieces.
It's probably a violation of most newspapers' letter policies.
"Carolyn Cavitt said: '...Dennis Alexander (of PAS) ... helped the
coalition write opinion pieces and letters to the editor.'"
"The project developed a plan of action that included an op-ed and
letter to the editor focusing on downtown economics (written by PAS
PAS' training in "identification of media opportunities" seems to have
been a bit too effective. SUC co-coordinator Jim Clayton
recently made a
big splash in the news by falsely accusing city council candidate/bar
owner George Etre of compensating his patrons for registering to vote.
Clayton's accusation was based on hearsay, as was the Iowa City
Press-Citizen coverage of the matter. The P-C reporter contacted the
student group responsible for the registration drive, yet did not ask
any questions pertaining to the accusation; and the P-C, always happy
to promote SUC's agenda, made a mountain out of a molehill. Etre backed
out of the race, and was later cleared by ICPD's investigation.
At least it's now clear how low these crusaders are willing to go to
PAS' coaching was entirely geared toward attaining "policy objectives,"
creating a climate in which government would be compelled to implement
the desired policies: promoting media coverage, creating the appearance
widespread community support, what to say in meetings, etc. Is there
support for these policy objectives? Not that much, according to the
community surveys, and their efforts did little or nothing to change
level of community support over the span of SUC's existence, as shown
their comparison of the 1998 and 2002 surveys. Some
examples from the AMOD case study:
"Relatively few respondents attributed student drinking to
the leniency of bar owners toward underage drinking, the number of bars
or convenience stores selling alcohol, or low-priced promotions of
However, SUC was "undeterred" by lack of public support for many of the
policy changes they wanted. Their efforts in lobbying the city council
and enlisting support with law enforcement met with far more success
than their efforts to change public opinion; meanwhile, student
drinking has actually
increased. Their approach has failed miserably, and I for one have had
than enough. Yet they don't seem to comprehend any of this. One can
assume that they remain "undeterred" after having accomplished nothing.
"Potential policies that received support from a minority of the
respondents were registration of beer kegs, police sting operations,
creating alcohol-free areas near the university's football stadium,
lowering the blood alcohol standard for drunk driving, and prohibiting
underage patrons from remaining after 10 p.m. in establishments serving
"There was little public support for policies aimed at restricting
alcohol-related advertising or price breaks such as all-you-can-drink
specials, happy hours and two-for-one specials."
Perhaps it's time to try an approach based on an attitude of respect
for basic human dignity, rather than one that views others as inferior
be coerced and manipulated. The tragedy of all this is that students
debase themselves when they guzzle their way into a hooting, staggering
destructive behavior is beneath them, and the message I would prefer to
them says simply, "Look, you guys. You are way better than this."