It's Havok on a Friday night

17th April 2009 at 01:00
A Livingston school's approach to underage drinking has had an impressive impact

A scottish town has seen anti-social behaviour plummet after school staff agreed to go out on the beat with the police.

Ending lessons at lunchtime on a Friday leaves afternoons free for vital staff development, according to Elaine Cook, head of Deans Community High in Livingston. However, pupils were not necessarily spending their afternoons in such a constructive manner.

"They were finishing school, clubbing their money together and buying drink," says Lisa Goodman, pupil support manager at Deans. "The police reported youth calls in Livingston and West Lothian were rising, with people complaining about anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related incidents."

In response, Operation Floorwalk was launched by Lothian and Borders Police to target underage teen-agers and their unacceptable be- haviour. Small teams of community police officers were despatched to hot spots on Fridays to pursue inebriated youngsters.

Ms Goodman accompanies the police on the beat, bridging the gap between the officers and the youngsters, and sharing her knowledge of regular haunts. "They see the police as the enemy," she says. "I suppose my being there can counter that."

According to community police officer Sergeant Greg Forbes, Ms Goodman, who is not paid for her work, is a vital member of the team and an "encyclopaedia of kids in north Livingston".

The impact of the multi-agency approach has been "tremendous", says Ms Cook. "The number of calls to the police over a weekend has decreased significantly. The number of young people found in possession of alcohol or under the influence has also decreased, which will make a positive impact on their lives."

The initiative started in February 2007. Between September 2007 and August 2008, police reported a "38 per cent sustained reduction in youth calls". Of the 150 young people who came into contact with police during that period, only five had been picked up by Operation Floorwalk before. They had "underlying social issues", say police, but still had moderated their behaviour and drinking "considerably".

The programme is, however, about more than clearing the streets of drunken youths. It is also about supporting young people to make "positive life choices", says Sergeant Forbes. "After 15 years in the police, this is the thing that's allowed me to make the biggest difference. Hopefully, we're getting kids to reconsider their relationship with alcohol at an early age."

Ms Goodman and police walk the streets in the community, raising awareness of the effects of alcohol. When they identify young people under the influence, they are taken to the police station as a place of safety. Parents or carers are contacted to collect their child. Workers from the West Lothian Drug and Alcohol Service meet the young people and counsel them on their risk-taking behaviour. "These kids don't see the consequences and dangers of their drinking," Ms Goodman says.

A senior police officer and Ms Goodman then meet the young person with their parentcarer to discuss the anti-social behaviour. Parents who have supplied alcohol are held accountable for their actions. Five pupils have self-referred to West Lothian Drug and Alcohol Service through the school for support.

The police have also attempted to cut off supply of alcohol by targeting shops and pubs that serve underage youngsters via Operation Froth. And more recently, another strand was added to the scheme with the launch of under-18s club night, Havok, which was a sell-out.

"We didn't want them to see it as a school disco, so we got in a good DJ," says Ms Goodman. Now, there will be Havok one Friday a month.

Operation Floorwalk was flagged up by HMIE as an example of good practice in its recent report on Deans Community High. It also received an award for outstanding work in the community and the chief constable's special award at the Police Force Excellence Awards in November last year.


Teenage tipplers

One hundred youngsters aged 12 to 16, who came into contact with Operation Floorwalk for underage drinking, between February 2007 and April 2008, agreed to take part in a survey. It found:

88 per cent had their first "proper alcoholic drink, not just a sip" by 14

Over a third (39 per cent) drank alcohol at least once a week; over a quarter (27 per cent) said they drank at least once a fortnight.

37 per cent said their first choice of drink was Buckfast tonic wine, with 31 per cent opting for alcopops and a further 31 per cent preferring spirits, usually vodka

32 per cent said their parents knew "for certain" they were drinking; 25 per cent were "slightly suspicious" and 18 per cent were "very suspicious"

Over half had consumed so much they had been sick; 13 per cent had been unconscious and 16 per cent had fallen asleep outside

The majority of the group admitted to drinking since being picked up by Operation Floorwalk, but 74 per cent said they had reduced their consumption.

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