Stepping Up to what?

Author's 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 documents.

by Bob Thompson

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 this?

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 was the 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 subsequent email conversation between himself, LV editor Todd Kimm, and UI VP of Community Relations and SUC member Steve Parrott. I took the opportunity to confront 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:

" 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 role.

"...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 us."

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 bingeing 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 notable effect has been a dramatic increase in the number of students in trouble with the law. SUC may have increased community awareness of student drinking, but only, it seems, to garner support for punishing students for it. Their prevailing messages to students have been either condescending, annoying, 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 measures"):

"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 objectives."

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 American 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 following:
Assistance in developing a strategic plan to support policy objectives

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
Drafting of media materials such as op-eds and letters to the editor??! This is mentioned three other times in the document:
"Julie Phye described the results of PAS's technical assistance.  'They were great in helping us write opinion pieces for the newspapers...'"

"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 staff)."
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.

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 change our "mindscape."

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 of widespread community support, what to say in meetings, etc. Is there community support for these policy objectives? Not that much, according to the SUP community surveys, and their efforts did little or nothing to change the level of community support over the span of SUC's existence, as shown in 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 alcoholic beverages by bars.

"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 alcohol.

"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."
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 more than enough. Yet they don't seem to comprehend any of this. One can only assume that they remain "undeterred" after having accomplished nothing.

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 pawns to be coerced and manipulated. The tragedy of all this is that students debase themselves when they guzzle their way into a hooting, staggering stupor. This destructive behavior is beneath them, and the message I would prefer to send them says simply, "Look, you guys. You are way better than this."