Teen drug and alcohol use has been persistent and seemingly inevitable. As a result of that, programs that aim to educate students on the risks and consequences of drug and alcohol have been as persistent and seemingly inevitable.
But how these programs have gone about educating teens (from scare tactics to teaching delayed use to preaching moderation over abstinence) has changed over time. Lovett has partnered with Soundcheck, a program that aims to educate sophomores about the risks of drugs and alcohol, while at the same time connecting with the kids and the school community to normalize a prevention conversation.
When asked why he chose Soundcheck to continue this program that has had a long history at Lovett, Chase Jones, the director of guidance, says that Will and Becky, the leaders of Soundcheck, worked with a company that Lovett previously had worked with. As a result, Soundcheck knows Lovett students, they know Lovett families a little bit, and a relationship between them and the school community as a whole already existed. So when they started their own company, Chase Jones explains that he hit up Will, and his aim was just to continue that connection.
While there is programming over the course of the four grades, sophomore year, according to Mr. Jones, is critical when it comes to kick-starting the prevention conversation. Sophomore year is the grade that students start to drive, they start to do more, they start to play more varsity sports, they begin taking AP classes, and there's just a lot thrown at them.
To make sure the program is as effective as possible, the two experts in the field that come to visit the students, Will Straughan and Backy Bergeron, explain that they do their best to see things through the student’s eyes. To do this, they met some of the 10th graders before they came here, doing extensive two-hour interviews, where they learned what the sophomores already knew about prevention.
It turned out that they already “knew the risks and had a basic nuts and bolts education,” says Will. Many talked about having a good sense of self, feeling connected to the school community, and believing they were being supported, especially through the advisory program. Will explains how these factors (feeling a sense of belonging) have a huge effect on drug and alcohol use.
Now, most of you probably remember the pre-survey we had to fill out as sophomores where they asked about how connected we felt to the community and what substance use in the community was like. But how confidential are the survey responses really? Some students may be afraid to tell the truth about their and their friend’s substance use if they feel like it's tracked.
When asked how confidential the survey responses are, Mr. Jones explains how “they’re completely confidential and are used to inform Will and Becky. For example, if the question is how many of you have vaped, and everyone says no, they're not going to spend a whole class dedicated to vaping if that’s not something that’s trending at Lovett. In a nutshell, I can see general trend lines but I would have no way of knowing who said what.”
Another thing makes Lovett different: the fact that they drug test everyone, not just athletes. When asked if he thinks drug testing has had a big impact on drug and alcohol use, Mr. Jones says that “drug testing has from the get-go been designed to help with health and wellness. Meaning if a student is choosing to use, then drug testing is a way to identify and then help that student or that family. As there are serious consequences if a student is choosing to use, I do think there's an element of accountability for that student, and if a student is debating on whether or not to use substances there is that hope that they don’t want to get drug tested and fail the drug test.” However, he explains, “I don’t have any specific data to show that our drug use has gone drastically down, but I think naturally there is a downward trend.”
When asked if they think drug testing has had a big impact on their choices, Alicia Kim, one of the sophomores, says yes. However, another sophomore says, “Not specifically, because I still wouldn’t be comfortable doing drugs, but from what I’ve heard from other people probably.” Alicia also adds that “drugs are not super prevalent because you get drug tested at Lovett, but alcohol use is a pretty big thing.”
What does this program really entail? What are the backgrounds of our specialists? Will Straughan says that he started doing school-based substance abuse prevention 5 to 6 years ago and fell in love with it. He traveled all over the world with another organization and then a little over a year ago decided to start Soundcheck, aiming to fold in the student voice more. In short, studies substance abuse education and how substance use affects the brain, and how the brain develops. “I’m also in recovery from addiction,'' says Will.
As for Becky Bergeron, she explains how “I started my career as a therapist for youth exploring mental health and co-occurring disorders and I transitioned 5 years ago into school-based prevention, and joined Soundcheck sometime in the summer.”
What do they preach? In a nutshell, they both explain to me that they encourage a delay of use and acknowledge that delayed use leads to a reduced risk of harm. “We don’t preach abstinence, more just being aware of what substances could do. We encourage students to make their own decisions and recognize warning signs, and sort of learn how to speak up and ask for help,” says Becky. “With young people we don’t promote the decision to use, but we try to encourage responsible use, however it's important to understand that adults have a higher capability of doing that.”
She says that this year the “week was centered around sort of ‘know you,’ and what your goals and values are, and know the safety and risks you may be taking with the decisions you make.”
When asked if they felt if the program resonated with them, Alicia says that “it helped us understand and learn more about what is happening in our community, so I guess yes.”
The other sophomore explained how “it was pretty interactive. We filled out worksheets and we had opportunities to raise our hands so it was pretty good.”
“We did a lot of peer discussion and a lot of activities that are about your personal goals,” adds Alicia.
I wondered how drug and alcohol awareness and teen education have changed over time. Looking back, Becky says her prevention education was based on scare tactics and the worst things that could happen and not realistic and relevant information. Now, she explains, prevention is more realistic and less scare-tactic based, and it’s evolved to take into account social influences and mental health and how the two affect substance use.
Both specialists agree that engaging students and elevating their voices helps them be more engaged with the program. “The best prevention involves the whole community and a common language," they say. "If you have all the members of the community involved, that's the best practice for prevention; ongoing conversation and skill-building are also important: if members are aware and understand they can keep having conversations."
Of course, many of the challenges teens face today are similar to those of previous generations. For example, social challenges have always existed but have changed because of social media. She also explains how for the longest time, in high-pressure environments, such as the one at Lovett, many kids feel overwhelmed and stressed out.
Will and Becky both agree that the program is a rich opportunity to interact with someone who knows about brain development and has personal experience, which is something that is not always available.
Will explains how many students have reached out years later saying their prevention program helped them stop using, and he was even given a 4-page letter from a student who had a prevention seminar 3 years before, thanking him. Hopefully, many Lovett students will be thankful to have this opportunity to learn and be educated about this challenging topic in a new, engaging way.