Pubdate: Wed, 31 Dec 2008
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Author: Mel Huff
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


CABOT - People who live in close-knit villages with clapboard
buildings around a green share a problem with those who live in
decaying inner cities: Their children use alcohol and drugs.

Ten years ago, Cabot School parents and staff confronted the issue
head-on and formed the Cabot Coalition, involving the whole community
- - businesses, parents, churches, retirees, the schools - in addressing
substance abuse by young people.

Over the past decade, the Coalition has won more than $1 million in
federal and state drug-prevention funding, become recognized as a
model and learned how difficult it is to protect children from
omnipresent temptations.

The Coalition's strategies include bringing speakers to the school,
disciplining athletes who violate the alcohol and drug policy, making
strong prevention messages part of the drivers education program,
offering a mentoring program that pairs young people with adults who
share their interests, and educating parents.

The results of the 2007 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey show how
pervasive the use of drugs and alcohol is. Nearly a fourth of Cabot
students in grades 8-12 reported that in the past 30 days, they had
ridden in a vehicle driven by someone who had been smoking marijuana;
13 percent said they had used marijuana 10 or more times in the same
period; and 28 percent had consumed at least one drink of alcohol. Of
those, by far the largest number, 38 percent, drank hard liquor; beer
and malt beverages trailed at 24 percent each.

Lori Augustyniak, the Coalition's coordinator, noted that the rate of
underage alcohol consumption in 2005 was the lowest ever for the Cabot
School and significantly lower than the Vermont average. Statewide, 55
percent of 12th-graders and 19 percent of eighth-graders drank during
the past 30 days.

The Cabot survey provided two other insights: 64 percent of students
knew an adult who has used marijuana, cocaine or another illegal drug
in the past year, and 39 percent knew an adult who sold drugs.

The 20 Cabot High School students who analyzed the results of the
survey were particularly concerned about the number of students who
use marijuana while driving and the number of young students who chew
tobacco (interestingly, most students think smoking cigarettes is
wrong). They were also troubled by the early ages at which students
start using alcohol, tobacco and marijuana - 12 1/2 to 13 1/2 years

Three student leaders from Cabot High School who are active in the
Coalition met in their guidance counselor's office with Augustyniak on
a recent morning and discussed why students use drugs, and why they

The students - Meriah Nunn, a senior with short, dark hair and
chartreuse and orange nails, Lyndsay Christman, an outgoing blonde,
and Knight Ducharme, a senior who is the national representative for
the Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program - agreed it all boils down
to relationships.

"People are introduced to (drugs) and then their friends are doing it,
so they think they have to do it. They want to still be their friends
or impress them," Christman, a sophomore, said.

Ducharme stressed that if you can't persuade friends who are using to
stop what they're doing, it's important to let them know that you are
there to support them "and that you definitely still want to be their
companion, even through they're making different life choices. It's
very important that they're not making these bad choices without
someone there to catch them, if they need to be caught."

Christman's friends don't drink or use drugs around her because they
know she will tell them it's bad for them. "I'm always on them about
quitting," she said. "I'm still really close friends with them, but I
kind of nag them in a joking way."

In a small school, Augustyniak observed, when students have been
friends since first grade and some of the group start making bad
decisions, it's not so easy to leave and find another group. Sue
Polen, Cabot's guidance counselor, noted that several grades have only
half a dozen students of the same gender, so there's not another group
to go to.

The advantage of a small school, she said, is "you can't totally
abandon someone when you only have 20 kids to choose from in your
entire grade."

Augustyniak noted that the reasons kids use drugs are complex - it's
not just about having fun. "There's a huge underlying piece of mental
wellness," she said, adding that many young people are

It also depends on what they've seen their role models do, especially
family members, Christman said.

"I grew up in a family where you do not do that - it's not good for
you. But some of my friends, especially if you have older siblings and
you're a younger child, you're more exposed because you want to hang
out with them," she said. "You always learn more from your older
siblings, and if you grow up in a home where your parents do it, you
think it's accepted."

There is plenty of information at Cabot about what drugs and alcohol
can do to young people's bodies, but Nunn, a senior, said that some of
the people that she and her friends hang out with "tend to not listen
because it's something they already participate in. They feel like,
'Why should I even listen to them? It doesn't matter - I've already
stepped over that boundary.' A lot of times it's just blocked out
because they feel like they're being preached to."

Polen noted that the earlier children start using, the more easily
they become addicted. "We have kids that are starting high school who
within a year are having serious addiction problems - not just using
problems, but addiction problems," she said. "So then you have the
physical addiction as well as the reason you're self-medicating in the
first place."

Polen said that guidance counselors don't have the time to do all the
extra prevention work that Augustyniak does, and the fact that the
Coalition exists outside of school as well as in school contributes to
its effectiveness. "I think it makes it safer for kids to actually
talk about what's really going on, more so than when they're in
school," Polen observed.

The Coalition is now focusing on middle school students, Polen said,
"because there's a big difference in working with kids before they've
started and trying to get them to stop." Part of the strategy involves
building relationships between the prestigious high school students
and younger students.

Nunn volunteers with middle school students in a program called Kapow - Kids
in Action Empowering Our World. This year's Halloween dance for the
middle-schoolers was a big success, she says, noting that many parents
showed up. Another success was last year's Kick Butts Day: "We had a lot of
fun doing that, and it was cool to see the middle schoolers could go into
their own classrooms and facilitate a game (about the health effects of
smoking) with each other."

Ducharme tutors in Cabot's elementary school. He observes that
"tutoring has been an excellent way to develop my relationships with
the younger kids. Now when you walk over to the primary area, they all
wave to you and want a high-five, and they know your name. Having that
relationship, they're more likely to listen to you rather than to some
scary high-schooler that they've never met."

The school sets aside days during the year for activities that
everyone in the school shares. This fall, the high school students and
younger ones went on field trip to Barre Opera House, riding the buses
together, and they baked together for the school's Apple Pie Festival.

Last year, Nunn said, "We did an ice cream day when we hung out and
ran around on the playgrounds with each other. It's really fun - the
day after when the kids see you, they're jumping up and down and
waving at you! They immediately wanted to know when we're going to
have another one."

Christman, who works as an aide in a fourth-grade class, maintains,
"Relationships are the biggest part of it." After the high school
students started working with the middle-schoolers last year, middle
school students who might think they are too cool to speak first would
started saying Hi to them in the halls and asking about their next
meeting, she said.

"Even with my own friends, relationships make the difference in
getting out information and supporting them if they already are
(using)," she declared. "Already having the relationship makes it so
much easier to be able to talk to them about it and helping them to
feel that they're not being preached at but being supported."

While trust is a crucial element, "goals are important, too," she

"For me, I have goals and I want to reach them, and I know (drinking
and using drugs) won't help me. I know what can happen," she said.
"I'm not risking that because I have better things to do."

One of the most "challenging" misconceptions that Polen deals with is
parents' idea that "they're almost 14 or almost 16 or almost 18, so
they're almost adults.

"In terms of alcohol use and tobacco use and being able to make smart
decisions, students are not adults at 14 or 16," she declares.
"They're becoming adults."

Parents say, '"What can I do?'" Polen observes. "They've giving up the
notion that they can have an influence, and they've stopped talking to
their kids. It's kind of like the ostrich with its head in the sand -
if I don't talk about it, it's not happening. I don't know if they
think kids are going to bring it up, but if parents don't bring it up,
it very seldom comes out on the table - which is where it needs to

Some parents say, "I have to trust my child," using that as an
argument for not verifying with other parents whether their children
were where they claimed to be, Polen says. She urges parents to not
only to talk to their children, but to trust their instincts and, if
they sense something is not right, to ask for help.

"Assume it's true until you find out otherwise. If there's a gut
instinct that something isn't right, the parent should persist in
trying to find out the truth," Polen says. "I've heard that from many
parents whose kids are now in serious trouble that by the time they
addressed it, it was too late" - the children were already heavily
addicted or in legal trouble.

"The idea that I need proof before I can do anything - No! When I
suspect is the time to open the discussion, because usually it's
already a problem by the time parents find out."

The Cabot students agreed that parents need to confront their children
and draw a line in the sand, regardless of how angry it makes them.
The most useful message children can hear, they said, is: "This isn't
acceptable. Not here. Not ever."

Augustyniak added, "We know that when parents have very clear rules
and expectations and consequences, it makes a difference. In survey
after survey after survey, one of the top reasons why kids don't use
is, 'My parents would kill me.'"
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