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Critics Prompt Overhaul of Beleaguered Alcohol School

March 16, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Few of the 6,000 Ventura County residents who are sent every year to Alcohol Information School want to be there. Most believe it was simply bad luck, not booze, that got them convicted of drunk driving in the first place. All grumble about having to pay as much as $875 for the honor of attending.

Even under the best of circumstances, the county program can be an administrative headache, with many staff members themselves recovering from alcoholism and with about 40% of their students being rearrested within seven years.

But the task is made all the more difficult by bickering and mismanagement. In a Ventura County Grand Jury report issued two weeks ago, the school was criticized for its lack of leadership, constant infighting, poor morale, unprofessional counseling and the "decline in overall . . . effectiveness" of its alcohol classes.

And the county Corrections Services Agency and some Municipal Court judges have complained that the school has not kept close enough tabs on its students, who are required by state law to attend weekly sessions for periods ranging from five weeks to one year.

Spotty Attendance

Last month, prodded to clean up its records, the school found that more than 1,000 students--about one-third of the total enrollment at the time--attended classes so spottily that their cases had to be referred to probation officers.

"We were in pretty bad shape," said Rudy Aguilar, co-director of the school. "You could feel the tension."

To help remedy those woes, school administrators said, new managers are being brought in, better truancy reports are being filed and a step-by-step manual outlining job descriptions and procedures is being drafted. A formal response to the grand jury's report is in the works, they said.

"In my opinion, we operate one of the best schools in the state," said Terry Dryer, a senior administrative analyst who was brought in to help clear up the mess. "We just had a glitch for a little while."

While school officials said they have already made some improvements, their dilemma still reflects the uphill battle that even the best-managed of the state's 56 alcohol programs must confront: How do you run a school designed for people who don't want to attend?

"There's really no definitive measure of how successful these programs are," said Mike Wood, executive director of the California Assn. of Drinking Driver Treatment Programs. "There are some success stories . . . but it's not easy because you're dealing with people who see it as just another part of the sentence. For them, it's like jail time."

Program Effectiveness

Studies in California and nationwide indicate that mandatory alcohol programs are generally more effective than doing nothing. But evidence is often inconclusive.

A 1981 report by the Orange County Alcohol Program found that participants in a yearlong alcohol class were rearrested for drunk driving about half as much as people who failed to complete the program. But a report the same year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that such programs had little effect in modifying behavior, especially for problem drinkers.

Preliminary results of a Ventura County study indicate that the Alcohol Information School has helped reduce the number of people who are rearrested for drunk driving, although a sizable percentage of former students continue to commit the same offenses.

Of 4,200 first-time offenders convicted during 1980 and 1981, 64% had not been arrested for driving under the influence seven years later. Alcohol school graduates avoided arrest in 66% of the cases, as opposed to 53% of non-graduates.

Of 1,200 repeat offenders convicted during the same years, 56% had not been rearrested seven years later. Graduates of the school fared better than dropouts, 62% to 46%.

"It would be nice to get tremendous results, but I think we have to mark our progress in small percentages," said Bill Weinerth, a special projects coordinator for the school who is working on the study. "We're dealing with a very recalcitrant population that by and large doesn't feel it has a problem."

Others are less hopeful.

"It doesn't get the drunks off the highways," said Ken Sears, who retired last year as administrator of the county's Alcohol Programs agency. "It still doesn't solve the basic problem."

The $1.3-million program, which is funded entirely by tuition, employs 24 people who teach a total of 60 classes at any given time. Most classes are supplemented by group and individual counseling sessions. Repeat offenders are required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a monthly workshop with victims of drunk drivers.

On a recent evening at the school on Telephone Road in Ventura, a dozen students, ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s, gathered in a small classroom for a 2 1/2-hour session.

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